Facial Recognition: Expanding Privacy and Identity

Isn’t it time for another “me-too” movement?

After all it’s been months without a me-too moan.

So here it is: Me-too!

Passing through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) gauntlet in Chicago last month, I crossed some line (assuming my pre-check privileges) and provoked several minutes of hands-on probes and palpations of my midsection and rear by a middle-aged agent.

He seemed to be enjoying himself Harvey Weinstein style and had all the time in the world. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. He made me take off my belt to get better access. He even pruriently patted my lustrous Dior tie. People were queuing impatiently behind me, looking at me askance. I was in danger of missing my connection.

Hey, folks, that is an invasion of privacy.

Just so you know.

So is an FBI agent coming to your door and handcuffing you or confiscating your computer. So is incarceration of an ethnic group in a concentration camp, even if no torture or organ harvesting occurs. Japanese Americans suffered such a violation during World War II.

However, such physical intrusions are totally unrelated to all the agitation in political circles over so-called violations of privacy in computer processing of metadata on phone calls, face recognition in public spaces, Facebook tags on photographs mistaking me for Friedrich von Hayek, Google collections of search records, Amazon ad-targeting, California laws against using face recognition in body cameras, machine learning applications on medical records, or Cambridge Analytica probing of voter opinions — just to name a few.

Nor are real privacy violations involved in any of the facial recognition tools from Chinese companies such as SenseTime, iFlytek, HikVision, and other recognition players put on the commerce department’s entities list as collaborators in the alleged mistreatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang province in China. These companies, every one of them, are protectors of privacy.

So is the FBI’s Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) unit, with its some 600 million photographs scannable by machine learning tools of facial recognition.

Computers cannot invade your privacy. Cameras cannot invade your privacy. Only humans can do that.

Here Comes the Real Invasion of Privacy

An invasion of privacy consists in treating people as undifferentiated units, essentially assuming that everyone is a potential terrorist or likely purchaser of Budweiser or Viagra. The epitome of privacy is the recognition of your face, your identity, your unique individuality, your actual wants and desires.

Targeted ads based on actual knowledge about you are better than untargeted ads. In Life After Television (1990), I looked forward to a day when advertisers would know so much about you that “no one would have to see an ad that he did not want to see.” That day is still far in the future. Distress is chiefly provoked by near misses — failures to cross the “uncanny valley” to the point that the targeting is correct. But targeted ads remain a reasonable goal, not a threat.

What is going on in Washington and Europe today is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationships between privacy, security, anonymity, identity, technology, and individuality.

This confusion is crippling American high technology, undermining its inexorable tendency to expand freedom and privacy, individuality and responsibility. Ironically, the drive to ban the technologies of surveillance poses the most serious current American threat to actual privacy.

As lawyer-prophet-technologist Peter Huber explained in the literary and polemical feast of his Orwell’s Revenge (1994), George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four misled generations of scholars and politicians with a vision of technology as a threat to privacy.

Huber’s tour de force on Orwell is one of Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite books — and mine, by the way. It shows that while right about the details of totalitarianism, “Orwell was wrong in his fundamental logic, wrong in his grand vision, wrong in his whole chain of reasoning.”

Information technology is not a threat to privacy. I was brought up in a small New England town. A couple telephone operators could listen in on all our phone calls. Rumor and authority ruled. The intuitive guesses of banker and sheriff determined your fate. Your reputation was largely dependent on how you looked and spoke.

From time to time, in other versions of our bucolic scene, mobs gathered and burned a “witch” or lynched an innocent bystander. Your ability to defend yourself by reaching a large audience with your ideas or corrected information was mostly dependent on ownership of a printing press or radio station.

Until the development of facial recognition tools, it was essentially impossible to differentiate people reliably in public places. Under these conditions, superficial features — race, ethnicity, yarmulke, Islamic garb — determine how people are treated.

The advance of technology has vastly expanded privacy and identity. Record keeping has hugely improved. Searchable databases mean that you can increasingly document your actual behavior.

But these gains are jeopardized by an increasingly hackable internet architecture with billions of breaches yearly. The net is a giant replicator or copying machine that means that any particular copy or record may be manipulated or falsified. Paranoia and conspiracy theories prevail.

Blockchain: How to Protect These Advancements

Now, the breakthrough of blockchain technology enables creation of an immutable database of time-stamped factuality. If a government body or powerful corporation charges you with embezzlement, tax evasion, or contract violation you have unprecedented ways to respond. Regardless of your ethnicity or unpopularity, you have the capability of “attestation”— the ability to cite an unimpeachable record of your actual behavior or transactions.

This new blockchain technology, like nearly all advances in information tools, enhances your privacy and your ability to assert and defend your individuality against collective institutions that would reduce you to an undifferentiated unit.

None the less, the world remains in the thrall of Orwell’s error. From Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, to Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, from Elizabeth Warren to Marco Rubio, from Republican Josh Hawley to Bernie Sanders, from National Review to the ACLU, from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, everyone agrees that privacy and security are at loggerheads. They concur, in the words of Computer Scientist Evan Selinger in USA Today, that facial recognition is a “a uniquely threatening tool of oppression.”

They treat facial recognition — a tool of identity and responsibility — as if it were a weapon of mass destruction.

In the European Economic Union’s (EEC’s) General Data Protection Law (“the right to be forgotten”), Brussels is actually endorsing Orwell’s “Memory Hole” enabling people to change their minds and erase the records of the past.

No one has the right to anonymity. Privacy is not the ability to hide the truth. The personal dignity afforded by free societies stems from the recognition of individuality and responsibility.

Privacy and security represent a false dichotomy, since they are in fact complements. The heart of privacy is identity, which is also crucial to security. It is the belief that privacy requires anonymity that leads to the invasion of privacy at US airports, where everyone is treated like a terrorist.

Today’s Prophecy

During a recent visit to Huawei in China, I was told about their hopes for facial recognition systems in airports and other public spaces that would identify you as you entered the area and allow you to pass through if you had previously demonstrated your good behavior.

Terahertz scanners might probe all baggage for possible explosives or other weapons. Because your identity and factuality is verifiable, you could walk through and get on your plane without undergoing any invasion of your privacy.

History tells us what happens in the absence of techniques enabling differentiation of terrorists from ordinary citizens. The US had to create concentration camps for Japanese-Americans because we had no way to tell loyal citizens from possible spies and saboteurs.

Let us leave those days permanently behind us.


George Gilder
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy

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George Gilder

George Gilder is the most knowledgeable man in America when it comes to the future of technology — and its impact on our lives.

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