The US state of Ohio has justified the installation without any prior warning or legal oversight of a facial recognition system using public data bases and CCTV, arguing that “every other state is doing so”.
Ohio is basically right: an article published in The Washington Post in June headlined “State photo-ID databases become troves for police” confirms that 37 states have already developed facial recognition systems that use driving license and other databases that are able to identify somebody who passes in front of a security camera.
Facial recognition’s transition from science fiction to being part of our daily lives has been rapid. It’s not just that we have been able to ask our software programs since 2009 to identify photographs of faces, something that is for personal use only (the iPhoto or Picasa databases only use photographs supplied by the user), but that a photo taken as we pass a border or used for a driving license now means that your movements can be followed every time you pass in front of a camera. A police car can circulate through the city with a camera and a laptop computer, and in real time, identify everybody it passes. The “terrifying prospect" of 2011 is now reality.
Google said in June that it would not allow facial recognition applications to be used on Google Glass , given the potential privacy issues it raised. Google’s tepid warning produced precisely the opposite effect: since the company itself has shown how to hack Google Glass in a developers event , some programmers felt encouraged to create facial recognition programs for Google Glass.
For the moment, we will just have to remember that all those CCTV cameras looking down at us from street corners are not just there to help prevent or solve crimes, but are a way to monitor and register our movements. Soon however, it won’t just be the authorities who will be able to do this—the consequences of which we already know about—but absolutely anybody. To all intents and purposes, the technological barrier of facial recognition, and its implications for our privacy, has already been crossed.