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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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Is Dave Eggers right about the risks of social media?

eggers the circle

I have to admit, though Egger’s is a pretty famous author, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I do however read AVC regularly, the writing of renowned VC & Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson. So when one of the commenters pointed to the book as a great read I grabbed a copy on my Kindle.

Flipping through to the back of the book, the further reading section is telling. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, DeLillo’s White Noise, Huxley’s Brave New World & Orwell’s 1984 are just a few on the list. All books that I’d read & enjoyed not only for their story, but for their cautious warning of a dystopian future.

The Circle story takes place at a fictional Silicon Valley company “The Circle”, whose campus includes wings such as Old West, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Machine Age & Industrial Revolution. The main character Mae, has just been hired in customer experience. Employees at the circle are all but *required* to socialize together. There everything is ranked, from customer satisfaction, to employee participation, comments, likes, posts & shares.

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I came away with five major themes from the book. As the characters march through the pages, watch them sacrifice their morality, free will & eventually human rights too.

1. social media is like snack food

What I loved most about the story, was how extreme the social media use had become. It was as though every moment had to be captured, every interaction “shared”. And with that, others then comment, favorite, and interact.

But as we found later, social media became something of lesser value. It was like eating snack food, a simulation of real food, missing in nutrients, but masquerading as the real thing. The metaphor holds together well, as we see people become fatigued with Facebook in the real world, and the constant sharing of everything.

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2. Egger’s fictional technologies are close at hand

At one point in the story, Mae does a search to find out about her family history. What turns up is more than she bargained for. It turns out that her parents had a rather odd affinity for yearly baccanalian partying, and the photos shock & embarrass Mae.

Turns out some neighbor had scanned a whole shoebox full of photos, and from there the internet crawlers took care of the rest, indexing the photos complete with facial recognition & identification. Once that was complete, a simple search revealed pictures even her parents didn’t know exist.

Facial recognition technologies in fact already exist, though are not widely used quite yet. Governments are obviously beginning to use them for law enforcement, but facebook & google are certainly getting into the act too. What’s more the SeeChange cameras described in the story, parallel Google Glass for example, which is maturing quickly.

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3. secrets are a real human need

After Mae begins wearing the SeeChange monocle, everything she does is streamed to an online audience. It begins as an exercise in transparency, but we quickly see the trouble it brings as Mae has no moments of privacy.

In this world, moments of intimacy become shorter & harder to find. And we see then how Mae begins to crave those moments, and they become more precious too.

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4. monitoring changes our behavior

Much of the monitoring and transparency in the Circle story comes from a new technology called SeeChange, a camera monocle worn around the neck, perhaps paralleling Google Glass that we have all heard of.

Surveillance can surely help prevent crime, or provide evidence after the fact. But one other affect of the technology is in warping people’s natural behavior, as though we are all on a stage, all on camera all the time. In Mae’s case she begins to act for the camera, and those around her do too.

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5. how social media warps our sense of time & human scale

Another interesting scene occurs when Mae follows up with a friend via text. Her friend doesn’t respond back, so she sends along another text a few minutes later asking if “everything is ok”. By Mae’s fourth & fifth message, she’s sure she’s been kidnapped, and by the tenth message she’s just angry and declares their friendship is over! All this in the span of 25 minutes.

I think Eggers uses a sort of extreme example, but really to illustrate an important point. In the world of always on communication, these types of misunderstandings are more and more common. Our sense of time changes, and we may feel that others are in slow motion.

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