The Examined Life of the Digital Age

You've seen it on CSI and other police procedurals a hundred times: the detectives take a surveillance photo and watch as their computer cycles through a zillion photos of perps and crooks until it blinks with a match, telling them who their suspect is. You may have known enough to realize that they can't actually do that—computerized face recognition isn't capable of taking a grainy, shadowed photo and identifying it positively as a particular person. Or at least they couldn't until recently. But the technology has been advancing rapidly, and now some law enforcement agencies are using powerful new software that can do just that, at least sometimes. It has a ways to go yet, but the question is when, not if, computers will be able to take the video that was shot of you as you walked down the sidewalk or browsed in a store and know exactly who you are.

Last Friday I brought up the question of the future of surveillance, after President Obama's speech proposing new limits on the National Security Agency's ability to store and search records of all our phone calls. But it deserves a lengthier discussion, because the question of personal anonymity and transparency is getting more complicated all the time, and it's about a lot more than phone records. In fact, it's central to how we'll interact in the near future not only with our government, but with the companies we buy from, the institutions in which we're embedded, and the people we know.

The diminution of privacy didn't start in the last few years. The ability to be anonymous has been receding for decades as documentation and record-keeping has advanced, like a picture of each of us coming more into focus with each passing year. At first it was government records that created the outlines of that picture—the Social Security number required to get a job, the driver's license required to own a car, the proof of identity required to purchase a home. Then it was credit card companies knowing more and more of our purchases, and today there is so much detail being added to the picture we can barely keep track of it all. It's your ISP that knows what web sites you've visited, your smartphone that tracks your movements, your phone provider that knows whom you've called, your cable company that knows what you've recorded on your DVR, Netflix that knows the movies you've watched, and Google that knows everything you've said in an email. Add to that the record you may have left on Facebook and Twitter of the daily trials and major events of your life, not to mention any time anybody else on those sites mentioned you.

That previously blurry picture of you is looking awfully focused, isn't it? And the clarity will only increase. Let's take just one part of your life, where you go in your car. Today, EZ Pass keeps records of where you've paid tolls (and in New York, your EZ Pass will be read even when you aren't paying a toll). Police departments are deploying more and more license plate cameras; you may have driven by a few without even knowing, your presence on that particular road at that particular time noted and stored. Now consider what will happen when self-driving cars are in wide use. The cars will be rolling data exchange platforms, continually communicating with each other and with computers tasked with guiding and monitoring the system.

There are already versions of this communication, just done through smartphones. For instance, Waze is an app that accesses its users' location information to track their speed and identify traffic hotspots, then communicates back with them so they can avoid traffic. It's awfully handy, and much more effective than waiting ten minutes for a traffic report on the radio that may not feature the road you want to know about. But it's also tracking your movements. And guess who bought the company last year?

Of course, nobody forces you to get that app. Whenever a new technology like this comes along, we make a choice between the disquieting feeling that we're being watched and the convenience or pleasure that the technology may bring. Most of the time, we opt to put the privacy question out of our heads, click "I agree" to the terms of use, and take the shiny new toy. Even if you're conscious of protecting your privacy and avoid apps that make you uncomfortable, you can't exactly choose not to use email if you want to be a participant in the modern world.

And like it or not, in the near future our cars will become more aware of where we're going and what we're doing, and so will our houses and offices, not to mention the very streets we walk on. Now try to imagine what will be possible when face recognition software advances to the point where it can nearly always recognize anyone who walks in front of a security camera.

When a security camera sees you, then a system checks your features against billions of other photos, finally homing in on your Facebook pages to establish your identity, we'll have created a de facto national facial database. We aren't there yet—it's going to take some software improvements and an increase in processor speed and memory storage—but it's only a matter of time. And just think how eager law enforcement agencies will be to use it. It would enable them to solve who knows how many crimes, and deter an untold number more. It will also enable them to make the picture they have of each of us much, much clearer, whether we've done anything wrong or not.

Not long ago, I picked up a novel to read at my local library. The librarian scanned my card and my book, handed them back, then leaned forward conspiratorially. "Are you going to write something about Christie?" she asked. After a moment of shock, I realized that she's a reader of the Prospect (outside of gatherings of liberals like a Democratic convention, I can count the number of times I've been recognized in public by a stranger on two hands). We chatted pleasantly for a few moments about the Governor's recent misfortunes, and her intentions were nothing but good. But upon walking out I felt quite unsettled. Should I go back in and borrow Remembrance of Things Past to show her that the mediocre sci-fi novel I took out was but a whimsical appetizer amidst a more profound literary diet? Was she even now looking over my previous borrowings? Will she tell her spouse about the encounter, including comments on my wardrobe?

She seemed nice; I doubt she'd do anything unprofessional or unkind. But all the same, at a moment when I thought I was anonymous, it turned out someone else was aware of who I was. Because it was a person and not a camera watching from a corner or software silently recording all it saw, I couldn't push it to a quiescent corner of my mind.

It may be the maturation of face recognition technology that brings that picture of each one of us that exists out there in the ether into near-perfect focus. Or maybe it will be some other invention, or maybe the combination of a dozen different developments. Whatever it is, whether we're talking about the NSA or your local police department, the government won't be able to resist using it. And when it's too disturbing to think about, as we realize that it doesn't take a totalitarian regime to assemble and gaze upon that picture, and that we cooperated eagerly in its construction, we'll probably decide just not to think about it.

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