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Is banning facial recognition missing the point?

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I thought I would step out of my usual shoes this month and talk about something besides cloud computing. People sometimes ask my opinion on technology, as I know a thing or two about it.

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What are your thoughts on facial recognition? Will banning it solve the problem?

If you are not already familiar with Bruce Schneier you should be. He has been the single smartest person talking about data collection for the past twenty years. He wrote Database Nation, Secrets and Lies, and Beyond Fear. His thinking is non-obvious, insightful, deep and almost always spot on.

Here’s what Bruce Schneier has to say about banning facial recognition.

1. There are many ways to skin a cat

If you want to prevent what facial recognition can do, ban it, right? Well, turns out there are many other ways to do the same thing. You can identify people by their heart beat (think fitbit or apple watch), the way they walk, and of course good old fashioned fingerprints. And we leave those everywhere. What else?

Every phone broadcasts it’s ID which is the MAC address of it’s network interface. And if you have cameras without facial recognition, they can still identify using Iris scanning. Yep really.

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2. Surveillance as a norm

When we say we don’t want facial recognition, we mean among other things that we don’t want anonymous identifying of people. But it also means we don’t want the later collection and identifying of people either.

Imagine you have a shoebox full of old photos. Photos at a beach, at a wedding, at tourist sites. Now you scan those into your computer, and you can identify all the people in the background. What a strange world we’ve built.

As Schneier points out, the larger question is what surveillance is okay and what is not? We as a society need to design rules and laws to outline how these technologies can and should be used for good, and to prevent their misuse and harm to people.

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3. The darkness of data brokering

The further collection of data by these large entities like facebook & google is more frightening still. Not for the data itself, but for it remaining completely unregulated. Government is still very behind what is happening at these giant companies.

Google knows things about your wife & husband that you don’t know. Google knows what the CEO of your competitor company is thinking and doing. Google knows your weaknesses, how and when you break the law. It’s hard to really grasp the scope. Every part of our online lives touches one of these companies. Even if you don’t use their services, you email people who do, and therefore are still known by them.

The laws we’ve built for the last century to prevent these types of abuses are mostly irrelevant to modern internet data companies. And as unregulated entities, they remain adversarial to citizens. We remain the product, not the customer.

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