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We may sometimes regret the anonymity of modern life, but would we really have it any other way? To be able to conduct our private business in public spaces is a privilege that most people throughout most of history could not have imagined.

In our own day, it is only the famous – or infamous – who are unable to lose themselves in a crowd. Even in the age of ubiquitous CCTV, being caught on camera is not the same thing as being recognised.

That however may be about to change. According to Charlie Savage of the New York Times, the US government is working on a facial recognition technology that has serious implications for privacy:

It sounds like the Department of Homeland Security could do with a little PR advice. If you’re developing a technology that will have every civil libertarian in the western world fearing for our basic freedoms, then calling it ‘BOSS’ isn’t really going to help, is it? They should try a less sinister name, such as ‘Hi-Tech Homeland Emergency Recognition Electronics’ – or ‘Hi-THERE’ for short. Sounds much friendlier.

Whatever you call it, this is how it’s meant to work:

If successfully deployed, the technology will be of huge help to the police in locating and identifying terrorists, criminals or missing persons:

And yet, by the same token, BOSS would allow the state to track the movements of ordinary citizens:

If you recall, the last Labour government wanted us all to carry ID cards. It was only a public backlash and Conservative opposition that frustrated their plans. However, if something like BOSS is deployed in Britain, ID cards will become irrelevant – because as long as your photo is on file, the state will always know who you are and where you are.

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