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What happens when face recognition becomes the new reality

Face recognition is now starting to loom large, and it won’t be long before etiquette changes in response. The internet has been instructed to email me whenever face recognition gets a big mention, and the emails ever since I said to do this have flowed to me in a steady trickle. Face recognition will soon be a Big Issue, and for many it already is. To photo anyone in public will soon be universally understood as like a potential public announcement of exactly where they were, exactly when. I presume that celebrities of ever decreasing celebrity are already hunted down with such software. Now regular people are starting to track each other. Soon, this possibility will be routine. Governments will want to make it illegal for anyone except themselves to behave like this, but I can’t see how they will be able make this stick.

I wonder where my husband was last weekend. I know where he said he was, but … let’s run the programme, and see if anything shows up. Was he in London with that tramp with the pink hat, I wonder?

That young speaker I heard yesterday for the first time seemed like quite a dangerously clever chap, with a potential big future that I disapprove of. So, www, show me every picture you have, and I don’t just mean the ones with his name attached. What does he do with himself? How does he relax? How does he unwind? Give me some dirt.

That kind of thing.

As the memory of the internet grows, people will be living more and more of their lives in a state of perpetual surveillance, of everyone, by everyone. At present, your name needs to be spelt out and attached to such revelations for them to be revelations. But that is fast changing. Soon, your face will be enough.

When I say “soon”, I don’t really know when all this is going to happen, and be seen to have happened. This may already be happening, or it may only really get talked about a decade hence. But happen it surely will. Whereas I only arrange to be informed when the words “face recognition” appear in an internet news story, it is surely only a matter of time before we can all of us say “show me any picture that looks like this person”. Scorn is often expressed concerning the apparently limitless appetite of the lower orders for “reality” TV shows. I heard such scorn yet again at that road pricing meeting I attended recently. Personally I don’t care for these shows either, but this is because I have always found the comedy of embarrassment too embarrassing to endure. An additional layer of sneering from other spectating just-about-celebrities, or just civilians, only makes it even worse. It is all I can do to watch Fawlty Towers without cringing and switching it off in horror. But I have long believed that the lower orders are onto something with their enthusiasm for these shows. What they are looking at is the future. A future in which the slightest movements, gestures and expressions, verbal and non-verbal, of everybody everywhere are a matter of potential public discussion among multitudes of strangers. The Global Village is very nearly here, and it is as if the lower orders can see it coming fast and are preparing themselves for it.

As of now, it is only “celebrities” who must live like this, including a few celebrities whose only claim to celebrity is that they look quite nice and choose to live in this peculiar state of permanent celebrity-ness. Educated opinion scorns such persons. But what if these people, who are celebrities only because they are celebrities, are leading the way for us, sussing out for us the explosives buried in a new social battlefield, risking their own social legs but enabling the rest of us to watch, and learn?

Besides which, such persons as Stephen Fry and Jonathan Miller are surely just rather more socially elevated versions of the same phenomenon.

Incidentally, and this is a bit of a digression, some time earlier this year I encountered someone on Westminster Bridge, who was surrounded by photographers and making a very public spectacle of himself by posing very obviously for the benefit of these photographers. He was there to be photographed, and I felt entirely entitled to be joining in, and later to be posting one of my snaps up on the www. But, I did not recognise the guy at all, other than thinking he looks like a younger version of the footballer Rio Ferdinand. So. Who was he? A younger member of the Ferdinand clan? A reality TV contestant? I asked this question on my personal blog, but got no answers at all, not even answers from people who said they didn’t know. So, anyone?

All of which began life as the mere preamble to that clutch of photographs at my personal blog, of a few of my fellow digital photographers. I have long considered such persons fun to photo. They adopt interesting poses. They stand still. They are happy and absorbed. They don’t see me photo-ing them. They do amazing things with their fingers, often while wearing amusing gloves or mittens.

But what if they are not where they told loved ones they would be? What if, unknown to me, they are minor celebs? Which is why my latest clutch of photographer photos is as strong as ever on hands, gloves, woolly hats, and of course cameras, but must less strong on faces. Yes, there is one face, which I include because the photo is so cool, with its reflection in the man’s sunglasses of the scene he is photo-ing. I love it when that happens. But mostly, faces are absent. Either not pointing at me, or covered by the camera, or simply not included in the picture in the first place.

The same thing, I see, applies to this earlier clutch of photographer photos from February of this year. And to the ones at the bottom of this even earlier posting. But if you look through older postings of photographer photos, you will see that I used not to be so scrupulous.

If and when commenting, please bear in mind that, as already stated, this posting began life as something for my personal blog, rather than for the mass medium that is Samizdata. Think of it as thinking aloud, more so even than usual with my stuff here. If you want to say I’m wrong about all this, fine, but be nice about it please.

17 comments to What happens when face recognition becomes the new reality

  • Regional

    I’ve seen programs that with the appropriate equipment individuals can be identified in huge crowds and given photo ID’s i.e. Drivers’ licences government goons could come knocking at your door to cart you off for re-education.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    With the proper programs to put in aging, we can find out where Elvis is hiding!!!

  • bob

    We could finally pin down that Waldo fellow!

  • Corsair

    If the State was to benefit from this technology, it will have to ban the burqa, otherwise we will all be wearing it.

  • pete

    We’ve had computer voice recognition for ages and it is still rubbish.

    I expect the same, or worse, with face recognition.

  • the other rob

    But what if they are not where they told loved ones they would be? What if, unknown to me, they are minor celebs? Which is why my latest clutch of photographer photos is as strong as ever on hands, gloves, woolly hats, and of course cameras, but must less strong on faces.

    This raises an interesting question about how social mores might change in the presence of ubiquitous facial recognition.

    Might it become generally infra dig to capture others’ faces in one’s photographs?

  • I can remember when optical character recognition was crap. Now, it is excellent. The system I use, anyway, mostly to copy gobs out of books.

  • the other rob

    You are right, this is already frowned upon, which is why I have one of those sneaky twiddling screens. They can’t see me doing it! And in about 2005, random children suddenly completely disappear from all my photos.

    A result I fear is that future generations will look at all the photos now being taken and say: But where are all the people? Did they only care about Things?

    No, we cared alright. That’s why the people aren’t anywhere to be seen, other than in distant, faceless crowds.

  • There is a Ken MacLeod(*) novel set at some point in the future in which a character encounters some particularly special camera and notes that it is the first camera that he had ever encountered that was large enough to be seen with the naked eye. We are headed for a world where cameras are going to be tiny, in all kinds of places, and very hard to spot. (As a guess, one thing we will see is spectacles and sunglasses with built in cameras pointing forward, so that it is possible to photograph exactly what you are seeing at any point in time. Perhaps we are all going to be doing this all the time). We are going to be photographing everyone’s faces all the time. I cannot see how this is not going to happen.

    (*) I think. There is a 20% chance it was Vernor Vinge.

  • bloke in spain

    Like Rob, above, I’m interested in the other side of the coin. For every action there is a reaction.
    Not everyone wants to be recognised or even photographed. Brian gave some examples above. I know I’d detest it. The photos of me I’m aware of are only in the low dozens & the instinct to duck & cover as soon as a camera’s pointed my way is now ingrained. Weird? Yeah, ain’t we all. But I can’t be that rare so what’s the solution for people like me? Sunglasses should help. I need to find somewhere does prescription mirrorshades to be surer. Veils for women could make a comeback. How about those half masks opera singers wear? They seem to confuse their husbands/wives. I like the idea of dazzle camouflage (Wiki it) to break up the features. Should defeat the algorithms. So could we end up with whole fashion style? The incog look. And then we’ll have the non-incog incog look for slebs who want to be recognised being incognito.

  • Regional

    Thanks to the people who mocked me.
    In NSW the Highway Patrol Rozzers cars have Numberplate recognition and when they pass you HQ immediately informs them if you don’t have an uptodate licence or registration.
    On the Sinny ‘arbour bridge cameras have numberplate and facial recogition. During a recent murder investigation a perp tried to lie about his whereabouts at the time of the crime, now doing sodomy. It will get to stage where the Rozzers will know where your vehicle is within the road network and who’s driving, so where a Bill Oddy mask.

  • Regional

    ‘s missing, incompetence.

  • BigFatFlyingBloke

    Like bloke in spain I actively avoid having my picture taken and the only web presence I have (that I know of) that isn’t completely anonymized is a linked in profile (which doesn’t have a picture attached and never will).

  • With CV dazzle, we could see a revival of the New Romantics…Adam Ant eat your heart out.


  • bloke in spain

    “In NSW the Highway Patrol Rozzers cars have Numberplate recognition ”

    There is quite a good workaround for that. A few high intensity infra-red LEDs around the licence plate. They’ll obscure the image even in daylight. Best if directed up to the angle at which the camera will be acquiring the image & masked so not visible to patrol cars. Or you’ll be the only car on the road not visible to their on-board camera. The devices are less than the size of a screwhead, so hard to spot.
    There’s probably lots of other applications. Incorporating in sunglasses frames for instance. Just a matter of locating the power pack (note to self-must get a 3D printer)
    Personally, I’m toying with the idea of lasers since one of those high powered pencils came my way. Experimented in the petrol station, one night. So helpful of them having a prominent display screen to remind customers they’re on camera. Whited it out a treat & an added bonus, seemed to have caused some damage because the image wasn’t looking too healthy after. Anyone know the best frequency laser? IR?
    You may possibly detect my slight aversion to CCTV.

  • Alan Little

    > a Bill Oddy mask

    … which reminds me of the time when, as a young Goodies fan, I found it very exciting to see Graeme Garden driving up a hill just round the corner from my house in an open top MGB. Thanks for the random fond childhood memory which has nothing to do with the subject at hand.