Back in 1995, when Nicholas Negroponte wrote Being Digital, his seminal piece on technologically-driven life, facial recognition technology was still a bit of a dream. He felt it was destined to become reality.
“Your face is, in effect, your display device, and your computer should be able to read it, which requires the recognition of your face and its unique expressions,” he wrote. “The technical challenge of recognizing faces and facial expressions is formidable. Nevertheless, its realization is eminently achievable in some contexts. In applications that involve you and your computer, it only needs to know if it is you, as opposed to anybody else on the planet.”
In 2018, this reads as prophetic. Just last year, Apple debuted the iPhone X, which users can choose to unlock by looking at — and thus being recognized by — its camera. Your face is already a password.
Of course, by now we also know a lot about facial recognition’s other use cases. In recent years, facial recognition has been introduced at airports around the United States as a way to confirm travelers’ identities. It was used last month to identify a man who murdered five people at a newspaper office in Maryland, and this month to pinpoint two people suspected of poisoning Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. Tech companies are working to create facial recognition software that can, among other things, help a blind person know who’s in a photograph, or even who’s in the room with them. Credit card companies are hoping facial recognition is the next step in payment authentication.
We’ve also seen how facial recognition technology can be misused.
“Imagine a government tracking you everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge,” Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, wrote recently in a public call for government regulation of facial recognition technology. “Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech.” Or don’t imagine at all, and instead just look to China, where in some cities “cameras scan train stations for China’s most wanted,” as the New York Times reports, and “billboard-size displays show the faces of jaywalkers and list the names of people who don’t pay their debts.” Facial recognition is also being used to “track members of the Uighur Muslim minority and map their relations with friends and family.”
Your face is already a password.
Obviously, the kind of questions Microsoft’s Brad Smith is prompting (What limits should be put on this technology? Who should control it?) are vital in coming to terms with how facial recognition impacts the world around us. But there’s a question Smith doesn’t address that Negroponte did, over two decades ago: What does it mean for our computers to “know” it is us when they “see” us?
In other words, what does facial recognition actually do to our face?