Imagine that you could open an app, while you’re riding on the subway or sitting at a bar, that could tell you everything about everyone sitting around you. Using facial recognition software, it could tap into social networks and databases to show you each person’s name and occupation. It could tell you whether you share mutual friends or common interests. It could even pull up their financial or criminal records. The potential for abuse is so dire, even Microsoft’s president recently called on the government to regulate the technology.

Judith Donath, a social technology researcher who has spent decades studying online culture at MIT and Harvard, believes this sort of advanced facial recognition technology is inevitable. But whether it turns into the ultimate icebreaker or a digital panopticon, she says, is entirely up to us.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Medium: In 10 years’ time, where will we be with facial recognition technology?

Judith Donath: I think we’re going to see facial recognition become quite commonplace. If you go on Facebook and your face is recognized in a photograph, that’s the same technology that will probably go into some type of augmented reality application that, when you walk down the street or you sit in a restaurant or you’re at a party, will give you the ability to identify the people around you.

Part of what’s important to understand about facial recognition is that the recognizing is only sort of the key. The treasure inside — or the demon inside, depending on how you look at it — is the database of information that it then lets you access about the people around you.

What will that mean for individual people?

I think it will very easily become a norm — that you’re expected to have that sort of recognition ability enabled if you’re out in public, much the same way that, for a variety of reasons, we’re very uncomfortable around people who are completely masked in public. The bans on burqas may have been primarily designed as a message to the Muslim community, but certainly the piece of it that got popular support was the idea that nobody should have their face covered in public, that there’s something wrong with that. When we think of robbers, they have face masks. There’s the anti-Antifa bill that’s being passed around now [which would send masked activists to jail for up to 15 years].

You could imagine versions of this technology where the adoption would stem from fear, where initially we have a system that would recognize any sex offender who’s near you, or anyone who’s a convicted felon. But it could also be more positive. People might have this sense that instead of being at a party with a bunch of strangers, they’re with a bunch of people they almost know — the software tells you, “This person is your college roommate’s cousin,” or, “This person also just finished reading the book you’re reading.” So I think there are a lot of ways people could get into facial recognition and find it to be very acceptable, even though right now we find it creepy and distressingly unprivate.

Are there any other ways in which some people might benefit from facial recognition technology?

I think it will help people feel safer. It might revitalize the sense that when you’re out in public, you’re surrounded by other human beings who are of interest in a good way.

On the other hand, it will also be in an era in which there’s tremendous government surveillance all the time. Whether that’s a benefit or a cost depends on the government. If you have an even slightly repressive government, it will make any kind of repression a lot easier. If everything in it comes from police databases and all you could see about people around you was whether they were sex offenders or felons or had 30 traffic violations, it could be very paranoia-inducing.

Could marginalized groups use it to protect themselves from people who are known to be racist, transphobic, or dangerous in other ways?

Yeah, you could have a database of who’s racist — but you could also have a database of who’s trans, if you’re anti-trans. You could have databases of who’s Jewish. These databases will make the people who find those others unacceptable feel safer, but it may be extremely marginalizing for those who are in the database. For many, it would be undeserved.

Could facial recognition be abused for stalking or discriminatory practices in business or housing?

If you’re someone who’s been harassed on Twitter, you don’t necessarily want to go out on the street and find that it follows you everywhere.

One possibility might be that people will feel much more constrained to being in groups of people like themselves. Our public spaces could become less diverse, because people will be less comfortable in that diversity. I think it’s hard to predict how people will react, and the reactions may be very heterogeneous themselves. There might be places where people are like, “Yes, this is really great. We have a lot more diverse spaces where people who would have previously just passed each other now feel able to interact.” And there may be other places where people are like, “Yeah, now the Jewish people are over here, and the trans people are over here, and people just stick to their own types.”

Do you think it might lead to individuals trying to disguise their identities?

I think it will be very hard. Any corporate building now, you have to give them an ID to enter. Now, you don’t have to show ID, you don’t have to be photographed, but then you don’t get to go up, either.

I think we’ll have an increasing number of spaces where your access, or a variety of other privileges, is dependent on this type of recognition. I think we’ll also have restaurants where you can pay with just your face. There’ll just be a lot of things that people will opt in to that make it very convenient to be recognized all the time, so that small subset who do not want to seem very suspicious. I’m not saying this is good — I’m just saying this is what it will be.

So, even people who were initially hostile to facial recognition technology could become reliant on it?

I think people will become quickly reliant on it. I’m guessing within 10 years, we will be in a situation where if we had our facial recognition abilities taken away from us, it would be creepy to be out in public with everyone as a total stranger whom you know nothing about. The fact that everyone is identified like this makes people behave a lot better. I think people would find it very disturbing to be in a world of strangers once they became used to one where they weren’t.

Throughout history, we’ve had different ideas about whether to feel safe in a crowd of strangers. How do you think the advent of widespread facial recognition could affect those perceptions in our time?

If you read a lot of literature on the city, people who write about it from a celebratory standpoint tend to be the ones who like the sense of anonymity, because they feel different. The city supports those who are different, because you’re anonymous enough that there is very little judgment on you that sticks. Facial recognition will be in support of more conformist behavior. It will be harder to be different, unless you are in a society that really, really embraces diversity and difference.

One of the particularly optimistic views I’ve had about this is that there is a tremendous opportunity to have really interesting online personas, which has been something people have waxed and waned on having interest in. What are the ways we have to control what others see about us and to shape it and to make it something interesting? Is it all going to be a database of facts about you beyond your immediate curatorial control, or will it be something more like an interesting profile you get to compile yourself?

Technology surges too quickly for regulators, legislators, and the judicial system to impose order on it before it’s too late. Microsoft president Brad Smith recently called on the government to issue regulations. Do you think there’s any hope that the government will keep up with regulating facial recognition technology?

Um, no. And particularly, I think regulating government use of it for law and order is probably one of the most important pieces, so doubly no.

Corporations’ voices are being heard louder and louder by the government, and I think it’s going to be very profitable for companies to have a lot of face recognition of people in their stores and what they’re doing. The way that you’re tracked online, they’d like to be tracking you throughout the world, so I think there’ll be tremendous corporate pressure, certainly in the United States.

There are also enough ways that this technology can seem beneficial to individuals to have access to it. I think the privacy concerns, while big, and while people will be upset about it, will not speak loudly enough to have any meaningful legislation.

Recently, you’ve been exploring questions about trust and deception in the information age. What role do you think facial recognition is likely to play in the realm of public discourse?

To the extent that you take part in a public discourse, you will now be physically tied to having taken part in that. As a writer, it might be great to have people say, “I liked your article.” It might not be great to be berated by people in public.

One of the ways of looking at the future of this is to look at our celebrity culture. What is it like being Kim Kardashian, or anyone who is a visually recognizable person who walks around in public? Living in a world of facial recognition might be like being Kim Kardashian: Everyone around you knows who you are — and knows a lot about you.