Face Recognition: The New Totalitarianism of Surveillance Technology

Search form

Face Recognition: The New Totalitarianism of Surveillance Technology

Face Recognition: The New Totalitarianism of Surveillance Technology
Mon, 8/20/2012 - by Naomi Wolf
This article originally appeared on The Guardian

A software engineer in my Facebook community wrote recently about his outrage that when he visited Disneyland, and went on a ride, the theme park offered him the photo of himself and his girlfriend to buy – with his credit card information already linked to it. He noted that he had never entered his name or information into anything at the theme park, or indicated that he wanted a photo, or alerted the humans at the ride to who he and his girlfriend were – so, he said, based on his professional experience, the system had to be using facial recognition technology. He had never signed an agreement allowing them to do so, and he declared that this use was illegal. He also claimed that Disney had recently shared data from facial-recognition technology with the United States military.

Yes, I know: it sounds like a paranoid rant.

Except that it turned out to be true. News21, supported by the Carnegie and Knight foundations, reports that Disney sites are indeed controlled by face-recognition technology, that the military is interested in the technology, and that the face-recognition contractor, Identix, has contracts with the US government – for technology that identifies individuals in a crowd.

Fast forward: after the Occupy crackdowns, I noted that odd-looking CCTVs had started to appear, attached to lampposts, in public venues in Manhattan where the small but unbowed remnants of Occupy congregated: there was one in Union Square, right in front of their encampment. I reported here on my experience of witnessing a white van marked "Indiana Energy" that was lifting workers up to the lampposts all around Union Square, and installing a type of camera. When I asked the workers what was happening – and why an Indiana company was dealing with New York City civic infrastructure, which would certainly raise questions – I was told: "I'm a contractor. Talk to ConEd."

I then noticed, some months later, that these bizarre camera/lights had been installed not only all around Union Square but also around Washington Square Park. I posted a photo I took of them, and asked: "What is this?" Commentators who had lived in China said that they were the same camera/streetlight combinations that are mounted around public places in China. These are enabled for facial recognition technology, which allows police to watch video that is tagged to individuals, in real time. When too many people congregate, they can be dispersed and intimidated simply by the risk of being identified – before dissent can coalesce. (Another of my Facebook commentators said that such lamppost cameras had been installed in Michigan, and that they barked "Obey", at pedestrians. This, too, sounded highly implausible – until this week in Richmond, British Columbia, near the Vancouver airport, when I was startled as the lamppost in the intersection started talking to me – in this case, instructing me on how to cross (as though I were blind or partially sighted).

Finally, last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to unveil a major new police surveillance infrastructure, developed by Microsoft. The Domain Awareness System links existing police databases with live video feeds, including cameras using vehicle license plate recognition software. No mention was made of whether the system plans to use – or already uses – facial recognition software. But, at present, there is no law to prevent US government and law enforcement agencies from building facial recognition databases.

And we know from industry newsletters that the U.S. military, law enforcement, and the department of homeland security are betting heavily on facial recognition technology. As PC World notes, Facebook itself is a market leader in the technology – but military and security agencies are close behind.

According to Homeland Security Newswire, billions of dollars are being invested in the development and manufacture of various biometric technologies capable of detecting and identifying anyone, anywhere in the world – via iris-scanning systems, already in use; foot-scanning technology (really); voice pattern ID software, and so on.

What is very obvious is that this technology will not be applied merely to people under arrest, or to people under surveillance in accordance with the fourth amendment (suspects in possible terrorist plots or other potential crimes, after law enforcement agents have already obtained a warrant from a magistrate). No, the "targets" here are me and you: everyone, all of the time. In the name of "national security," the capacity is being built to identify, track and document any citizen constantly and continuously.

The revealing boosterism of a trade magazine like Homeland Security Newswire envisions endless profits for the surveillance industry, in a society where your TV is spying on you, a billboard you drive by recognizes you, "Minority Report"-style, and the FBI knows where to find your tattoo – before you have committed any crime: "FBI on Track to Book Faces, Scars, Tattoos," it notes; "Billboards, TVs Detect your Faces; Advertisers Salivate," it gloats; "Biometric Companies See Government as the Driver of Future Market Growth," it announces. Indeed, the article admits without a blush that all the growth is expected to be in government consumption, with "no real expectation" of private-sector growth at all. So much for smaller government!

To acclimate their populations to this brave new world of invasive surveillance technologies, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and and his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, both recently introduced "snoop" bills. Meanwhile, in the US – "the land of the free" – the onward march of the surveillers continues apace, without check or consultation.

Article Tabs

I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015.

Stingray, activist surveillance, surveillance programs, KingFish, Triggerfish, Harris Corporation, California Electronic Privacy Act, ACLU, unwarranted surveillance

The multi-agency effort to acquire a controversial cellphone surveillance device would make it possible for Oakland and Fremont police to scoop up data from everyone in a given area – dragnet style.

Micah White, Occupy Wall Street, movement strategies, movement tactics, mass protests, Black Lives Matter, The End of Protest

The co-creator of Occupy Wall Street has advice for the next generation of social movements: “Never protest the same way twice.”

The HRA protects the right to life, liberty, security, a fair trial, respect for private life and freedom of expression – it also bans torture, slavery and discrimination.

By making the cost of breaking the law outweigh the cost of following it, business owners will be deterred from committing the crime in the first place.

Fight for $15, $15 minimum wage, bank bailouts, corporate subsidies,

Municipal leaders should be commended for acknowledging the current wage is too low – but phasing in a higher wage over many years is unacceptable in an economy where costs of living are rising and wages are falling.

Posted 2 days 19 hours ago
Move Your Money, Wells Fargo crimes, illegal foreclosure, subprime mortgage lending, predatory loans

The only way the big banks will feel something similar to the loss and harm they caused is if you Move Your Money from those institutions to second tier banks, community banks and credit unions – so join the campaign now.

Posted 6 days 18 hours ago
right-wing extremists, right-wing attacks, jihadists, New America Foundation, War on Terror, Charleston massacre

Right-wing attacks have killed almost twice as many Americans.

Posted 6 days 18 hours ago
Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, single-payer health care, uninsured Americans, right to healthcare

“What the United States should do is join every other major nation and recognize that healthcare is a right of citizenship,” said presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who advocates a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system.

Posted 6 days 18 hours ago

bout time! Timeline of same-sex marriage in the United States

Posted 4 days 18 hours ago
$15 minimum wage, Fight for $15, Personal Care Attendants, Quality Home Care Workforce Act, #WageAction

Tears of joy streaked the faces of cheering home care workers assembled in their Dorchester union hall last week as a decades-long struggle for recognition and a living wage culminated in a historic moment of celebration.

carbon emissions, mercury emissions, EPA, Clean Air Act

The Supreme Court invalidated a key Obama administration environmental regulation aimed at limiting emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants mainly from coal-fired power plants.

right-wing extremists, right-wing attacks, jihadists, New America Foundation, War on Terror, Charleston massacre

Right-wing attacks have killed almost twice as many Americans.

A yes vote would mean depression almost without end – by contrast, a no vote would at least open the possibility that Greece, with its strong democratic tradition, might grasp its destiny in its own hands.

Sign Up