The George Orwell novel “1984” famously coined the quote, “Big Brother is watching you.” Written in 1949, well before sophisticated camera surveillance systems existed, it painted a picture of a world where everyone was under omnipresent government surveillance. In 2019, this is somewhat of a reality. We have the technology to almost constantly keep an eye on our citizens. Most of us have cell phones, access to the internet and participate in public life that makes us rather easy to keep track of. Now, we are face to face with a new level of surveillance: facial recognition.
In most public places such as stores, there are usually cameras monitoring the area or building. There are traffic cameras and cameras on our devices. We have social media, where we often post pictures of ourselves, making us easily identifiable. Without us knowing it, the government constantly collects “metadata” about us. There is a very long list of “metadata” examples on the National Security Agency website, such as social media activity and any footage from surveillance cameras. Despite all of this, we can safely say that we are not in the same kind of totalitarian hellworld that “1984” describes.
Nevertheless, the reason people are wary of facial recognition technology is because of the lack of consent involved in the process in comparison to other methods of identity. Senator Al Franken has expressed this in an open letter to a company called Nametag, saying that, “unlike other biometric identifiers such as iris scans and fingerprints, facial recognition is designed to operate at a distance, without the knowledge or consent of the person being identified.” Nametag wanted to create an app that would integrate with the Google Glass. The app would use the Glass camera to scan a person’s face and pull up their online profile. Understandably, this created controversy, and the app has since been shelved.
Facial recognition technology has the potential to shape the landscape of law enforcement and surveillance on a global level, and it also has the potential to be used to violate people’s civil rights. Recently, Michael Punke, the current President of Public Policy for Amazon Web Services, spoke about the dangers and advantages of facial recognition software. He stated that facial recognition must be done in accordance to the law, and most importantly that “There should be no ambiguity that existing laws (for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) apply to and may restrict the use of this technology in some circumstances.” It is not uncommon to hear about loopholes being found to circumvent the law. While laws are often written to be somewhat open to interpretation, I agree with Punke. There should be no ambiguity or wiggle room when it comes to the lawful use of facial recognition. I also agree with him that there should be transparency from law enforcement, as well as public notices, about when and why facial recognition software is being used.
With that being said, Punke did not address that the law can sometimes be weaponized against its own people, specifically those who are already marginalized to begin with. This is a legitimate fear for anyone to have. Punke’s assertions require us to trust our laws, trust those who enforce the law and assume that our government has our best intentions in mind.
It is not just our government that uses facial recognition technology. Facebook uses it to recognize whether you were tagged in a photo or not. Cell phone companies across the board have added the optional feature to unlock your phone with your face. We will likely see further implementation of facial recognition technology in our lives. This makes us more suspicious about how non-governmental entities and criminals will be using or misusing this software, and less so our government. While our government, for the most part, is concerned with ethics and the law, the private sector is not always as thoughtful. With the growing trend in deregulation in our government, this seems to be more of a concern. While our government may be able to use it for counter-terrorist measures, there is a potential that criminals themselves may use it nefariously.
I support the use of facial recognition software. The rationale for surveillance is for the safety of the public, not social control. The former director of the NSA Gen. Keith Alexander stated, “We’re doing two things: we’re defending this country from future terrorist attacks and we’re defending our civil liberties and privacy.” Additionally, the NSA publicly states: “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” It sounds a bit off to me, something akin to a cop walking into your room unannounced as they search your house, but I understand the intention of the statement. There is a price to pay for our safety and a price to pay to use technology. One of those prices is some of our privacy. If I am safer and my country is safer, I am willing to relinquish some of my privacy. It may be blind of faith, or I may be naive, but I trust that our government is using facial recognition technology for the good of our country.