Each day seems to bring another application of face recognition technology. In one of the more recent news, a UK company has developed a face recognition-powered queueing systems for bars. A webcam above the bar films the crowd of people waiting to order their drinks and the system, named A.I. Bar, uses face recognition to keep track of a virtual queue: the barman sees on a screen who to serve next and a customer-facing screen above the bar shows numbers next to customers’ faces indicating their position in the queue.
How did we arrive here? When did it become the norm that by entering a semi-public space such as a bar we implicitly agree to be filmed, identified and tracked? Has it in fact become the norm?
Every technology is adopted gradually. First there were automatic border gates at airports. They seemed harmless: we had to stand in a specific location and remove our glasses, the camera came with its own special white light and each check took seemingly forever. Combined, these “features” made it clear to us when we are and when we are not surveilled. It gave us a sense of control. Even though we may not have had a choice whether to engage with the technology or not, the illusion of control was there.
Then there was Facebook’s tagging of photos. At first Facebook merely detected faces in uploaded photos and we had to supply their names manually. Then, once face recognition was advanced enough, Facebook was able to tell not only where the face is, but also who’s face it is. Still, we were not overly worried. Face recognition was used only when we posted photos to Facebook, only when we decided to actively engage with the technology. We could compartmentalise the use of face recognition and not worry about it the rest of the time.
It is more difficult to compartmentalise Apple’s FaceID since it is used every time we pick up our iPhones. But here we have Apple’s promise that all processing happens on the device; our faces never leave the phone. Again, this provides us with a sense of control: we decide to use the technology when we pick up the phone and at any time we can delete the stored face image and go back to using a PIN to unlock the phone. And yet, when reading that Apple used one billion images to train the AI behind FaceID, we should pause and ask ourselves, where do these images come from?
This was the past. The future is different. With the new generation of face recognition-powered products and services the balance shifts: face recognition can now be used continuously, video streams can be analysed in real time making compartmentalisation more difficult; and with cameras installed in public or semi-public spaces we lose the choice whether or not to use face recognition. That choice is made for us.
But do we need to be alarmed? Is there a difference between face recognition and other modes of surveillance? Surely, browser cookies have been tracking our internet browsing and our phones have been tracking our location for the past years already (even when we think we have disabled location tracking)? Why should we be more concerned about face recognition? There is a difference: face recognition tracks who we are rather than something we possess or something we do.
To avoid tracking when surfing the internet we can use incognito mode, connect to the internet via a VPN or even use the Tor browser. We can turn off our phones and leave them at home or buy a second phone if required. But there is no incognito mode for our faces, we cannot leave our face at home to avoid tracking for a day and covering our face in public leads to instant suspicion. With face recognition, tracking and surveillance is no longer opt-in or opt-out, but rather non-optional.
Right now we still have a choice. As a technology face recognition, even though far from perfect, is mature enough to be deployed in products at scale. And while it is being adopted gradually, by businesses, the police and the government, it is not yet ubiquitous. But, given the pace of technological change, soon it may well be. In China it probably already is. Which leads us to the simple question: do we want it to? And the more complicated follow-up: what will we do next?