Facial Recognition and the Loss of Anonymity

With all the attention given to the Obama administration's new regulations on carbon emissions, you may have missed the latest revelation from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden, which came out over the weekend. The latest news is that the NSA is now increasingly relying on facial recognition in its surveillance, and gathers millions of images a day from emails, social media, and other sources, and it isn't alone. Here's an excerpt from a report that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday:

State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The F.B.I. is developing what it calls its "next generation identification" project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data.

The State Department has what several outside experts say could be the largest facial imagery database in the federal government, storing hundreds of millions of photographs of American passport holders and foreign visa applicants. And the Department of Homeland Security is funding pilot projects at police departments around the country to match suspects against faces in a crowd.

The N.S.A., though, is unique in its ability to match images with huge troves of private communications.

Facial recognition technology has been leaping ahead lately; a couple of months ago, Facebook announced that their software can now identify faces as well as humans do. Not long ago that seemed years away, since it was believed that our extraordinary talent for pattern recognition gave us capabilities that would nearly impossible for computers to match, at least for the near future. But apparently not.

To be clear, the NSA's use of facial recognition isn't necessarily sinister as long as sufficient controls are in place (a big if), and it isn't at all surprising. As soon as the technology advanced to the point where it was useful, they were going to use it. And there will likely be cases in which it actually does provide information that aids in critical investigations, because being able to track people's movements is so powerful.

It's the combination of two factors—improvements in facial recognition software, and the ability to cross-reference between different databases—that will give this technology its power. Consider how much you could triangulate about a person if you could connect all the different images that exist of them. Some of those are static, like the driver's license or passport pictures that show exactly who they are. Others, like the images from the surveillance cameras that dot every downtown corner, or traffic cameras on roads, or pictures from Facebook (where 250 million photos are uploaded every day), can show where they've been, whom they've associated with, and what they've done. Once surveillance of people's electronic lives meets surveillance of their corporeal lives with things like facial recognition or data about where your car has gone, the government's ability to track people has reached an entirely new level.

When we hear the word "privacy," we tend to think of the intimate details of our lives being exposed—the content of our phone conversations, personal information about our finances or health, what we do in our homes, and so on. But there's a related right that will be much easier to lose than the right to privacy: the right to anonymity. It's the right to walk down the street or drive somewhere or get on a subway or walk into a store without being not just photographed but identified. And before long, it could be just a memory.