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:
- “The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.
- “The Department of Homeland Security tested a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System — or BOSS — last fall after two years of government-financed development. Although the system is not ready for use, researchers say they are making significant advances. That alarms privacy advocates, who say that now is the time for the government to establish oversight rules and limits on how it will someday be used.”
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.
- “The system consists of two towers bearing ‘robotic camera structures’ with infrared and distance sensors. They take pictures of the same subject from slightly different angles. A computer then processes the images into a ‘3-D signature’ built from data like the ratios between various points on someone’s face to be compared against data about faces stored in a watch-list database, the documents show.”
- “…BOSS research began as an effort to help the military detect potential suicide bombers and other terrorists overseas at 'outdoor polling places in Afghanistan and Iraq,' among other sites, the documents show. But in 2010, the effort was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security to be developed for use instead by the police in the United States.”
- Ginger McCall, a privacy advocate who obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to The New York Times, said the time was now — while such technology is still maturing and not yet deployed — to build in rules for how it may be used…
- “In particular, she said, there should be limits on whose faces are loaded into them when they are ready for deployment. Ms. McCall said it would be acceptable to use it for terrorism watch lists, but she feared any effort to systematically track everyone’s public movements by using a comprehensive database of driver’s license photographs.”
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.