I’ve been blogging for a while about miniaturization and the ‘vanishing’ of surveillance devices. This disappearance occurs in many ways, one of which is the incorporation of high-tech surveillance features into objects and devices that we are already used to or their reduction to a size and form factor that is relatively familiar. Two examples coincidentally arrived in my inbox over the last week.
The first was the news that the US Navy has awarded a development contract for binoculars that incorporate three-dimensional face-recognition technology from StereoVision Inc (who may well be the bunch of California-based face recog people I met at a biometrics industry show a few years back). This supposedly gets round the problems that standard two-dimensional face recognition has dealing with unpredictably mobile crowds of people in natural light (AKA ‘the real world’). The issue I’m highlighting here however is that we don’t expect binoculars to be equipped with face recognition. Binoculars may not be entirely socially acceptable items, and already convey implications of creepy voyeurism when used in urban or domestic situations, however this is something else entirely.
The second is the extraordinarily rapid ongoing progress towards working handheld terahertz wave technology (a far more effective form of scanning technology than either the backscatter x-ray or millimeter wave systems used in the bulky bodyscanners currently in use at airports). Just four years ago, I noted the theoretical proof that this was possible, and last month, it was revealed that police in New York were testing handheld terahertz wave scanners, (Thruvision from Digital Barriers) which of course people were likening to Star Trek’s tricorders. The idea that the police could perform a virtual strip search on the street without even having to ask is again, a pretty major change, but it’s also the case that the basic technology can be incorporated into standard video camera systems – potentially everyone with a mobile phone camera could be doing this in a few years.
I’m not a technological determinist, but in the context of societies in which suspicion, publicity and exposure are becoming increasingly socially normative, I have to ask what these technologies and many others like them imply for conventional responses based on ‘privacy’. Privacy by design is pretty much a joke when the sole purpose of such devices is to breach privacy. And control by privacy regulators is based on the ability to know that one is actually under surveillance – when everything can potentially be performing some kind of highly advanced surveillance, how is one able to tell, let alone select which of the constant breaches of privacy is worth challenging? So, do we simply ban the use of certain forms of surveillance technology in public places? How, would this be enforced given that any conventional form factor might or might not contain such technology? And would this simply result in an even more intense asymmetry of the gaze, when the military and the police have such devices, but people are prevented from using them? Do we rely of camouflage, spoofing and disabling techniques and technologies against those who might be seeking to expose us? You can bet the state will not be happy if these become widespread – just look at the police reaction to existing sousveillance and cop-watching initiatives…
Spoofing biometrics has become a mini-industry, as one would expect as the technologies of recognition become more pervasive. And not all of these methods are high-tech. Tsutomu Matsumoto’s low tech ‘gummy fingerprint‘ approach to beating fingerprint recognition is already quite well-known, for example. I’ve also seen him demonstrate very effective iris scan spoofing using cardboard irises.
Facial recognition would seem the most obvious target for such spoofing given that it is likely to be the system most used in public or other open spaces. And one of the most ingenious systems I have seen recently involves a few very simple tips. Inspired by the increasing hostility of legal systems to masks and head coverings, CV Dazzle claims to be an ‘open-source’ camouflage system for defeating computer vision.
Among the interesting findings of the project, which started as part of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is that the more complex and high-fashion disguise-type attempts to beat facial recognition did not work as well as the simpler flat camouflage approaches. The solution suggested thus involves many of the same principles as earlier forms of camouflage: breaking up surface patterns and disguising surface topography. It uses startling make-up techniques which look a bit like 80s New Romantic face painting as deployed by Adam and the Ants – hence the title of this post! The system concentrates especially on key areas of the face which are essential to most facial recognition software systems such as the area around the bridge of the nose, cheekbones and eye socket depth.
So, will we see a revival of the Dandy Highwayman look as a strategy of counter-surveillance? Or more likely, will social embarrassment and the desire to seem ‘normal’ mean that video surveillance operators have a relatively easy life?
The Huffington Post has got itself in a twist about a new iPhone face-recognition app, Recognizr, that it claims will enable someone to take a person’s picture and instantly give them access to all their social networking details. Except that isn’t quite the case. As one (largely ignored) commenter points out, it’s not quite as the HP portrays it. It isn’t an open system – the original story (linked in the HP one) says that you have to opt in to the system, and upload your photo, and other social networking sites you want to be linked, into the developer’s own database. So only those who have decided they want to be part of this system can be recognised and linked. It’s only a rather small step from existing methods of social networking, and perhaps considered as the face recognition equivalent of giving out a business card. There’s the potential there for all kinds of development from this though, I would agree, but this isn’t (yet) a stalker’s or a marketer’s dream.
There is an excellent new report on facial recognition now available for free download. The report is written by my one-time co-author on the subject, Lucas Introna of Lancaster University, and new Surveillance & Society advisory board member, Helen Nissenbaum of New York University.
The report is aimed primarily at people who developing policy on, or thinking of commissioning or even using facial recognition and therefore concentrates on the practical questions (does it work? what are its limitations?) however it does not neglect the moral and political issues of both overt and covert use. What is quite interesting for me is how little the technical problems with the systems have changed since Lucas and I wrote our piece back in 2004; the ability of facial recognition to work in real-world situations as opposed to controlled environments still appears limited by environmental and systemic variables like lighting, the size of the gallery of faces and so on.
The report is probably the best non-technical summary available and is perfect for non-specialists who want to understand what is the state-of-the-art in facial recognition and the range of issues associated with the technology. Very much recommended.