Who does your face belong to?

Is your face “Leave” or “Remain”?

Not the sort of thing one regular person asks another. But perhaps a person – in power – might ask it of an algorithm. And to a facial recognition system it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask.

Dystopian? Perhaps.

Farfetched? Not at all.

Let me explain what I mean. Last week the Chinese authorities imposed a face mask ban on protestors in Hong Kong. Why? Because screening and profiling people’s faces has now become another weapon the state can deploy against its citizens.

It’s terrifying stuff – and a logical step on from mere “surveillance” culture. Rather than simply watch over people as they go about their lives (which is bad enough), the authorities now have the technology to screen and face-track people.

It’s not just your face that’s no longer private, though. Your face can then be used to build a social, political and economic profile around. Who you voted for. Who you do business with. Who you spend time with. Where you spend your time. Who and what you protest against. Where you shop. What you read. Everything.

That sounds like the end of anonymity, to me. Perhaps we reached that point a long time ago and we’re now simply living with the consequences. 

The argument against this position is the tired old cliché: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Why shouldn’t the state know everything about you – including where you are at all times – just in case you do something wrong.

That old chestnut. Follow the logic of that through and we’ll all one day have cameras forcibly installed on our person in order to record everything we do, read or say. And that information will be used to infer what we think. That data will ultimately be for sale to the highest bidder. “I’m sorry sir, we don’t serve Brexiteers in this café. Try the one down the street.”

Don’t scoff at that as farfetched. There are plenty of authoritarian enablers out there, ready to help society blunder towards that world.

Ultimately, it comes down to one thing: who does your face belong to? You… or the state? Actually that leads to an even bigger question. Who do you belong to? You, an innocent individual who seeks to live your life the way you want, without being watching, tracked, monitored and profiled.

I have good news on that front. People may well be willing to give up a huge amount of privacy. They’ll allow themselves to be watched by CCTV cameras near constantly. But it turns out that’s with the proviso that the camera isn’t smart enough to know who you are.

Add that toxic element into the mix and people start pushing back. In Hong Kong, people defied the ban on face masks. They defended their right to anonymity. My face is mine! It’s sovereign! I’ll hide it if I like.

I doubt the war anonymity ends there – or even stays put in China.

How long, for instance, before Britain’s vast CCTV network is “upgraded” to utilise new facial recognition technology? Then in the coming unrest (anyone can see Brexit is going to come to the boil – likely on the streets – at some point) protestors and counter-protestors can be tracked and profiled. Then the authorities will indeed be able to tell you if your face is “Leave” or “Remain”.

Unless you stay indoors and don’t exercise your right to protest. Which is another form of totalitarianism altogether.

In China the technology is being harnessed by the state. In the West, we’re seeing private companies seek to manipulate the legal framework to its own ends. Look at Amazon. Jeff Bezos has openly admitted his company is seeking to write – or at the very least co-write – facial recognition laws. He put it this way last month:

“Our public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulations; it makes a lot of sense to regulate that. It’s a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it. But at the same time, there’s also potential for abuses of that kind of technology, so you do want regulations. It’s a classic dual-use kind of technology.”

Hmm. Not sure about that one, Jeff. Mostly because we know the playbook by now. Develop new technology. Use that technology to turn private data into a commodity. Use that commodity to profit/control/supress people (depending on your system of government).

The problem is, your face is not a piece of data. Bezos may want it to be. But it’s not. It’s not like a commercial transaction. Or a website you visit. Those are voluntary actions you enter into freely. This is not true of “having a face”. You can’t choose not to have one. Therefore it belongs to you. Therefore it is not data.

Rant over. For now. Right of reply, as always, to nick@southbankresearch.com.

Until tomorrow,

Nick O’Connor
Publisher, Exponential Investor 

Category: Robotics

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