Face ID on the iPhone is Cool. What About When the Police Use it?

5 minute read
| Particle Debris
More Details on iPhone 8 Facial Recognition Emerge

Computers simply help us do what our minds can’t do quickly. But it’s the same social process.

When your iPhone X does Face ID to identify you, it’s pretty cool. But when law enforcement officials do it to us, it feels creepy for some reason. That’s a topic worth discussing. The launching point for this is a story from Reuters:

Here’s the essence:

At a highway check point on the outskirts of Beijing, local police are this week testing out a new security tool: smart glasses that can pick up facial features and car registration plates, and match them in real-time with a database of suspects.

The starting point for me is that we already do a lot of facial recognition in our society, both personally and by the police.

  1. In a small town, the local sheriff spots some kids stealing peaches from the farmer’s market on Saturday morning. The sheriff sighs: “Ah, yes, those are the Wilson kids. I’ll have to pay visit to their father.”
  2. A spouse walks in the front door of the house without a badge or keycode. The partner takes one look and recognizes the face. No challenge required.
  3. An NCIS agent has memorized a wanted poster, then bumps into that person who is acting mysteriously on a naval base. Stops the person.
  4. At a party, a famous author or actor shows up. Fans recognize the personality and gather around, hoping to show their appreciation, get an autograph.

Facial recognition is an intrinsic part of our society. We use it to tell friend from foe. Nothing could be more natural than for law enforcement, in a very crowded situation, to wear smart glasses and quickly identify those who might be a danger. It’s part of our continuing technology partnership with the human mind.

And yet, when used by other people than ourselves, it feels sci-fi creepy. The article above cites the film Minority Report, and the suggestion is that if a piece of technology was demonstrated creatively as massively abused in a thriller movie, then, when it comes into real world use, it must be very bad indeed.

But when I think about it more broadly, I realize that emotional reaction isn’t sound thinking. Moreover, from time immemorial, anonymity has been used by thieves to cover their tracks. Commit a crime. Then hide. Assisted face identification lifts that traditional veil.

Now, it should be pointed out that such a facial recognition system can be abused. Probably will be. The article notes, as an aside:

A key concern is that [Face ID] blacklists could include a wide range of people stretching from lawyers and artists to political dissidents, charity workers, journalists and rights activists.

Fortunately, at least for now, there are ample political and legal means to question whether various dissidents in the U.S. are a good use of the database used. The situation, as with many other technologies, is constantly in self correction. The mere fact that one can envision how a security system could be abused is necessary but insufficient to block its adoption. What has to happen, as always, is that law enforcement officials of good faith have to place constraints on their own systems. If they don’t, they know lawsuits will get out of control and tie their hands.

And that’s the whole point here. We depend on social, ethical and religious norms to conduct our society. When they break down, technology can be turned against us. The principle of granting the least necessary and appropriate power is typically built into our culture. If that goes by the wayside, then tyranny is unleashed.

Democracy has no built-in self-protection mechanisms except for those who practice it.

Next Page: The News Debris For The Week of March 12th. Apple’s sound strategy.

12 Comments Add a comment

  1. palmac

    Good comments on facial ID. It’s like how people used to be worried about the massive surveillance being like Big Brother in 1984, but now with camera phones everywhere it’s the police who are under near constant observation. Someday we’ll have access to this tech and use it to scan crowds at protests to see if any anarchists are there to start trouble, or at popular venues to see if anyone you know is also there. As someone who is terrible at names, I personally would use something like this to refresh my memory when a person I don’t recognize waves and comes towards me 😉

    And here’s how you turn the tables on Big Brother:
    https://youtu.be/YYQKDqjCEBQ

  2. gGrant

    Just quickly, facial recognition software for personal use is just that – your own business. No problems there. I was driving a friend’s car and was pulled over because (unknown to me) they had outstanding fines. Even though I was a different gender, I still had to produce evidence I wasn’t the owner of the vehicle or be further detained. Unlikely police resources would have been used to go to this person’s house to collect outstanding fines!! I trust you see the slippery slope here.

    What’s creepy and unethical is ubiquitous surveillance for no other reason than because it can be done. All this user internet data collection, surveillance and facial tracking doesn’t seem to solve much actual crime or terrorism, or even prevent it. The Boston bombers were identified by humans watching surveillance videos. There’s much speculation and justification of data/facial collection supposing one day it will bear fruit, but no concrete examples of this actually working in practice. If challenged, iffy ‘proofs’ will undoubtedly come to the fore, just as FBI spends more time recruiting mentally ill and giving them money to buy weapons to justify their terrorism budget than catching actual terrorists (because there are really very few of them).

    The principle of leaving the citizenry alone unless they’re suspected of a crime is morally sound and even more applicable today than it ever was (let’s call this the privacy principle). It prevents Minority Report mentality – we can predict crime/terrorism based on collected data. It prevents extreme governments of any persuasion (left, right or anything else) trying to silence dissent using ubiquitous surveillance.

    Free Speech is already being redefined as speech I agree with. Proving that we’re already on the dystopian road long predicted – how ever well intentioned the justifications seem. In days gone by, (name your favourite hate group) marched and were ignored as a minority viewpoint, the proper perspective. These days, opponents trying to make political capital (not actually do anything about a particular problem) make a fuss and not only give them a national platform that they couldn’t garner on their own, but create a problem where there wasn’t one before.

    The fear economy is fast pushing society into a needlessly self destructive state, in an awesome demonstration of self-justification. And desensitising the public to the violation of the privacy principle, facilitating the collection of mass surveillance data with no demonstrable benefit, literally out of fear and promises of potentially alleviating it (when only increasing it).

    This is gravely concerning and needs to be discussed, dispassionately and logically before the malaise becomes epidemic.

  3. Lee Dronick

    Are you still using a 4-digit passcode on your iPhone? Grayshift has built a box that’ll crack your iPhone’s password in about two hours. It’ll take three days for 6-digits. Jonny Evans at Apple Must reports: “GrayKey iPhone ‘hack-in-a-box’ proves you need complex passcodes.” Personally, I think it’s time to go to 8 character passcodes on our iPhones.

    And how soon until someone has a box to crack an 8-digit passcode, a 16?

    • gGrant

      Decryption has been lost in the security debate. With GPUs doing the heavy lifting these days, estimates about how long it takes to crack encryption are probably B.S. Even so, law enforcement doesn’t want to have to decrypt, they want a backdoor/open slather access without having to do their job at all, just let us in, thanks.

  4. skipaq

    Facial recognition in and of itself is not an invasion of privacy. Society and the government they build will use whatever means are available to identify threats to citizens. Safety is a concern that prompts people to form societal institutions. The potential for abuse is always present; but that has never stopped societies from using whatever technological advancements are available to police itself. What is good is the friction that exists between rights and the need to police ourselves. This results in a balancing act that the society itself will use to correct actions that threaten this balance.

    • gGrant

      Who trades privacy for security loses both.

      Liberty vs Security is a false dichotomy. A rhetorical device designed to lead the argument down a false path. Don’t be fooled.

  5. vpndev

    It’s worth noting that there’s a world of difference between facial recognition – a one-time thing – and ongoing location tracking through use of continued face recognition, number-plate recognition, etc. These are invasion of privacy and in breach of Fourth Amendment whereas the one-time recognition is not.

    This is why the long-term retention of facial and number-plate data is dangerous – it opens the opportunity for profiling and tracking.

    • DMO

      I agree with vpndev. It’s when the officer (with the glasses) sees you at the corner, and then can see where you were “noted” 25 minutes ago, or last week, or even ever . . . . That’s what is creepy about this kind of surveillance.

  6. jackadoodle

    This site can’t make up it’s mind. In this article, John Martellaro expresses fear of government/police using technology. Yet I recall (and just found on Google) in his September 2017 article Andrew Orr talks about wanting government apps and technology to be more widespread.

    As a conservative, I think we need government for some minimal things, but we must always work to keep it as small as possible. And I think this article shows why it should be kept as small as possible.

    • DMO

      So maybe John and Andrew (who are, I think, two different people) disagree, or maybe they are/were talking about different uses of technology. Fortunately, you can read both articles and decide which one, or which parts of both, you agree with. Why would we want there to be a fixed TMO perspective?

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