Privacy & Security

Sleepwalking into a Total Surveillance State – and How to Stop it

Face recognition and other biometric technologies have come a long way since, say, 2003.

I have an article in my archives from that year in which two Japanese tourists visiting Australia fooled a face recognition system simply by swapping passports.

However, in the 16 years since this incident, face recognition technology has vastly improved. Swapping passports is unlikely to fool today’s face recognition software.

What’s more, when you walk outside your home, you’ll encounter face recognition technology nearly everywhere you go.

Do you have a driver’s license? Idemia, the world’s largest biometric surveillance company, has unveiled a plan to create digital driver’s licenses you could use anytime you need to identify yourself. Instead of handing over a physical license, you would simply flash an app on your smartphone. Never have heard of Idemia? The company oversees the process of issuing driver’s licenses in 42 of the 50 states. And it already has more than three billion photos of faces in its databases.

Idemia has also been instrumental in helping states comply with the Real ID initiative, which imposes security, authentication, and issuance standards for American state driver's licenses and state ID cards. There are 43 separate standards that Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses must meet – one of which is compatibility with facial recognition systems.

Are you planning to travel internationally? Thanks to the Customs & Border Protection (CB&P) agency, there’s a “Biometric Exit” initiative in place at more than a dozen US airports. Instead of handing your boarding pass and ID over to a security agent, you simply look into a camera lens. Your face is instantly scanned and matched with identity photos the CBP has on file.

Once you’ve reached your destination, you’ll find it easy and convenient to check into your hotel using nothing but your face. That technology is only now emerging, but at the FlyZoo Hotel in Hangzhou, China, guests can check in with Fliggy, Alibaba’s travel app with face recognition.

Do you have children or grandchildren that attend public school? You’ll be thrilled about the plans many districts are putting into effect to install cameras with face-recognition software in schools. One New York school district is installing a $2.75 million networked system that will instantly identify any visitors who are expelled students, former employees, and even parents who don’t have legal custody of their kids. The intention, of course, is to “protect the children.” Who can argue with that laudable purpose?

Do you like baseball? You can look forward to the plan by Major League Baseball to introduce biometric ticketing and concessions starting this year. It’s made possible by CLEAR, which dubs itself as “the company building a connected world that’s smarter and more secure.”  All you need to do is to set up a CLEAR profile and link it to your account. For now, only fingerprint identification is supported, but CLEAR promises face recognition capability soon.

Do you enjoy encounters with law enforcement? Thanks to Amazon artificial intelligence software cleverly-named Rekognition, cops on the beat no longer need to ask you for identification. They’ll know who you are as soon as they get close enough to take a photo of you with their smartphone. Rekognition does the heavy lifting; it instantaneously compares your photo to all of the databases the cops have access to. Databases like Idemia’s collection of three billion faces. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?

The fact is, the surveillance technology I’ve highlighted will make life easier and more convenient for most people. The average citizen will gladly trade their privacy to more quickly board a plane or buy a hot dog at the ballpark.

But at what price? To understand the implications, first consider the massive 2017 data breach at Equifax, in which the credit files of nearly 150 million Americans were compromised by hackers. It turns out that Equifax neglected to apply a software patch that its vendors had recommended installing months before the breach occurred.

Even though Equifax conduct proved its depraved indifference to data security, consumers could protect themselves from the potential sale of their credit data to identity thieves. They could freeze their credit files, making it impossible for a thief to impersonate them and obtain credit in their name.

But it would be very different if hackers were to penetrate the database of Idemia and steal three billion facial images. You can lock down your credit files with a security freeze, but it’s impossible for most of us to get a new face (Arya Stark notwithstanding).  

Indeed, all the biometric identifiers that are increasingly used to track us – fingerprinting, DNA, retinal scans, etc. are vulnerable. If the databases that store these identifiers get hacked, the thieves could literally impersonate anyone at the click of a mouse.

And that’s not even the worst problem. Face recognition and other biometric technologies are uniquely threatening surveillance mechanisms from the standpoint of human freedom. Combined with the data from your financial transactions, your social media profiles, your educational background, and so much more, biometric technologies give governments the raw ingredients to impose a cradle-to-grave authoritarian state. Continuous surveillance will become a given, and most people will be convinced that resistance to the status quo is futile.

China gives us a glimpse of this future in its dystopian Social Credit System. It comprises a series of massive searchable databases on 1.3 billion Chinese citizens, created by aggregating data from all public and private sources. It includes data collected from social networks, web searches, purchasing records, and other information to assign each citizen a “national trust score.” In 2018, the system prevented people with low scores from buying nearly 18 million flight tickets and 5.5 million train tickets after they wound up on a blacklist for social credit offenses.

Higher-rated citizens – those who regularly praise the Communist party, whose faces aren’t matched against databases of dissenters, and who have no friends rated as subversive, for instance – enjoy perks denied to lower-rated citizens. The perks include access to better schools, fewer visa formalities, and improved job opportunities.

I anticipate that in the next few years, many more countries, including the US, will unveil variants of the Social Credit System. And most people will eagerly sign up to take advantage of the benefits governments will offer citizens with high ratings.

There are no easy answers to avoid sleepwalking into a surveillance state. You can lock yourself in your home and never leave. Cover your face every time you go out in public. Wear gloves to avoid leaving trace DNA samples everywhere you go. But chances are that your biometric data is already out there for the taking.

Some cities – San Francisco is one – are considering banning face recognition. I’m not sure that’s the right approach, because this technology is only one piece of a much broader trend toward total surveillance. A more effective remedy would be giving each of us ownership of our own data, including our facial features, and forbidding use of it without our permission. That’s the only way I can think of to stop is will otherwise an inevitable slide into a global totalitarian state.

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