Face Recognition Technology
Smile for the
camera.” It’s a phrase that has attained a permanent (albeit fluid) place in our
colloquial American lexicon. Rooted in the amateur photography of family and
friends, it has now become a sarcastic catch- phrase uttered when under the gaze
of surveillance cameras in banks, gas stations, parking lots, and shopping
malls. Government buildings, schools, parks, hospitals, and busy street
intersections no longer escape the gaze either. Surveillance cameras are
everywhere. As disturbing as this phenomena might be, the next phase of video
surveillance employing Face Recognition Technology is sure to send a chill down
your spine and through the body politic.
By creating a
template of our facial configurations (e.g., the length of the nose, angle of
the jaw, etc.) Face Recognition Technology (FRT) functions much like other
biometric technology such as iris scanning, using biological features for
recognition purposes. According to one manufacturer of FRT, Visionics, the
technology “can find human faces anywhere in the field of view and at any
distance, and it can continuously track them and crop them out of the scene,
matching the face against a watch list. Totally hands off, continuously and in
This makes face
recognition surveillance qualitatively different from other biometrics in at
least one important respect: it can and does take place without our knowledge.
Last February, over 60,000 people entering the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa
Bay for the Super Bowl game were unknowingly filmed by tiny cameras equipped
with FRT. Each facial image was digitized and checked against a database, making
the event the biggest police line-up in history.
11, the proliferation of FRT has been rapid, moving most notably from places
like airports (Logan Airport in Boston, T.F. Green Airport in Providence, Rhode
Island, Fresno Airport in California, and Palm Beach International Airport in
Florida) into the public spaces of Miami, Tampa Bay, and LA.
non-participatory or “hands off” aspect of the technology has led the courts to
consider FRT non-intrusive, hence constitutional. This is a dangerous mistake
and the ACLU has been unsuccessful in challenging it.
Thus far, the
ACLU’s argument has been two-fold. First, they assert that FRT’s margin of error
is so great as to be de facto ineffective. Additionally, they claim that
false positives (i.e., wrongly identifying someone as a threat and subsequently
arresting or searching them) violate the fourth amendment rights of individuals
against unreasonable search and seizure. While the effectiveness of FRT is
debatable, the ACLU is right to find “false positives” unnecessarily intrusive.
this approach doesn’t address the aggregate “chilling effect” this surveillance
will have on the public sphere. The ACLU defends our individual rights and
liberties, but cannot ensure those extra-constitutional components of social
practice essential to a functioning democracy.
Thus, the ACLU
can defend the freedom of the press, but cannot address the anti-democratic
effects of a near monopolistic corporate media that marginalizes investigative
journalism and willingly propagandizes for government or corporate interests. It
can defend our right to privacy (i.e., against unreasonable searches of home or
person), but not our anonymity when participating in the public sphere. The
latter protects us against intimidation and “black listing” by state
intelligence agencies and corporations. One need only look to the effects of the
U.S. Army’s domestic intelligence program in the 1960s or the FBI’s COINTELPRO
(1956-71) witch- hunt to see the disastrous effects of state surveillance of
legal political activity.
would have happened had FRT been operative during the abolitionist, labor,
women’s suffrage, civil rights, and anti-war movements. How many would have
declined to take a leaflet, walk in a march, or participate in a rally if they
knew the State was monitoring them as a single, identifiable individual? The
growth of these movements hinged on the anonymity of the curious and uncommitted
to investigate, engage, and perhaps join them without fear of repercussions or
need of explanation.
Employing FCT in
public spaces fosters mistrust and non- participation, further eroding an
already endangered civic culture. The task of preventing this surveillance of
public spaces is one we must take up. Our strategy can begin by vigorously
participating in and thereby strengthening exactly that which is under
attack—the public sphere itself. Z
Kautzer heads the Social Justice Alliance in Stony Brook, New York.