Feature

Does my face fit?

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Alan Burkitt-Gray boards a plane and worries about the increasing use of facial recognition technology

A funny thing happened as I boarded my flight to London on the way back from International Telecoms Week in May. After nearly half a century of air travel, I didn’t have to show my boarding pass, or my passport, to the ground crew at the gate at Boston’s Logan Airport.

I’d already travelled the leg from Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington to Boston in the old-fashioned way, but this second, longer and overnight hop was different.

Instead of waving bits of paper at a human being or putting my boarding pass on a scanner – or both – I stood in front of a scanner and gazed at it. Nothing more.

The system processed for a few seconds and then it signalled me to go through. It was facial recognition that the system used to decide whether I was the person for whom the ticket had been booked, the person who had checked in to the flight and handed over my luggage.

Now, excuse me if I’m being naïve here, and I do remember the story about the older George Bush being shown a supermarket barcode scanner during the 1992 presidential campaign. He wondered aloud how long it would take for most Americans to use them (Bush was, here, using the term “Americans” as the synonym used by most Americans for the word “people”). The assembled media were too polite to point out that people – not just Americans – had been scanning their groceries with barcodes for many years.

War against toothpaste

Back in before-times, until late 2019, I was a relatively frequent traveller. In 2018, I went to more countries, mostly in the service of Capacity, than in any previous year of my life. I’ve been through a few boarding gates in my time, observing the increase in security from 2001 onwards. I’m well aware that my collection of equipment, including camera lenses, will probably send me off for a bag search, and I know not to take even a small tube of toothpaste through London City Airport.

So this evening experience at Logan Airport was unusual. I’d printed off a boarding card at a machine, and then a clerk at the BA desk in the terminal had matched me up with a booking and, no doubt, noted that I sort of looked like the picture in my battered, eight-year-old passport. And then I went through security – fortunately this time without my camera lenses exciting any machine’s interest.

But, in my experience, being let on board without a further human check – and a human smile – marked a transition to a new stage. Now, facial recognition by machines is given supremacy over a visual check by a tired person in the effort to protect our security. It means that facial recognition is now good enough, in the eyes of security authorities, to guarantee identity. (Remember that on the morning of 11 September 2011, two of the four teams of hijacking terrorists took off from Logan.)

But facial recognition is not just an innocent way of verifying identity, as uncontroversial as typing your PIN into your smartphone.

Picnic in the park

For a start, if it will verify you at an airport gate in Boston, telling you apart from all the other people who are boarding planes on a Saturday evening, it can identify you in a shop, or in the street, or in a park. At the same time, it can identify who you’re with as you buy your socks or walk down that street or picnic in that park.

Incidentally, BT’s enterprise division also proudly showed off in May that, as a way of furthering its smart-city dreams, it can hoover up data from trains, buses, shopping centres and streets, as well as utility systems.

What’s stopping the police from matching that with data from mobile phone companies, I asked. Well, the police wouldn’t do anything illegal, would they, was the less than convincing reply.

So, what happens if a small cell picked up the fact that you and a notorious opponent of the political status quo were within the same few metres of each other for several hours on a Sunday afternoon? Especially if, hey, look, this facial recognition system thinks that your companion could be identified as a person who did not agree with the current government?

A number of organisations have expressed concern about the growing use of facial recognition technology. They start with those famous freethinkers of the internet age, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which in October 2021 said: “All forms of face recognition are a menace to privacy, free speech and racial justice.”

They continue through the US Internal Revenue Service, not a bunch of radicals, which said in February 2022 that it will stop using ID.me, an identification verification service that uses facial recognition technology.

And they end, for now, in May 2022, with the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which fined a company called Clearview AI £7.5 million for gathering and using images of people – in the UK and elsewhere – just because it could. It collected them “from the web and social media to create a global online database that could be used for facial recognition”, in the ICO’s own words.

By the way, let’s nail the argument that if you do nothing wrong you have nothing to fear. There was a time, a few years ago, when post-Communist Russia was, briefly, a haven of free speech. Not now. Today, if you peacefully use the word “war” to describe the unjustified invasion of Ukraine, you’ll be subject to 15 years in a Russian jail.

The face of Putin

Imagine that the FSB – successor to the KGB – had possession of facial recognition technology back in the 1990s, before Vladimir Putin came to power. That database would today be a powerful weapon against freedom and in support of his dictatorship.

Remember that protest can be right. It was right in eastern Europe throughout the Cold War, it was right in apartheid-era South Africa, it was right during the Smith régime in what is now Zimbabwe, it was right in the 1970s in Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal and the colonels’ Greece.

Technology is not neutral. Read up on IBM’s sale of punch-card technology in 1930s Germany, ostensibly to simplify the census, but later a deadly instrument in the holocaust. Don’t let facial recognition give perpetual power to the opponents of freedom.

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