12/5/2019 09:57

Algorithmic Facial Recognition

As a prosopagnosiac, the entire concept of facial recognition is far outside the realm of life as I know it. It is something like quantum mechanics: I believe that it happens but I have no way to connect that belief to my own personal experience.

Here's a bit of history trivia: 2019 was the last year in which debate about using algorithms for facial recognition was still thought to be meaningful. By next year the process will have become so pervasive that debate will have become moot. Or maybe that happened in 2018.

The debate in the US about using facial recognition to monitor sports events and business districts seems to have faded after a public backlash forced police agencies and security companies to reduce their bragging about it. It's hard to know whether the public thinks facial recognition is bad or only that bragging about facial recognition is bad.

That isn't stopping governments from embracing the technology, just more quietly for the time being. In the news this week is an article about increasing its use at the US borders.

The Trump administration intends to propose a regulation next year that would require all travelers - including U.S. citizens - to be photographed when entering or leaving the United States, according to the administration's regulatory agenda.

Totalitarian China is continuing to expand use of the technology. I imagine that false positives are less concerning where privacy and basic fairness have less of a mythical status.

China on Sunday put into effect new regulations that require Chinese telecom carriers to scan the faces of users registering new mobile phone services, a move the government says is aimed at cracking down on fraud.

"Cracking down on fraud" is not a positive evil and Americans who buy iPhones have shown an inclination toward accepting facial recognition to safeguard their own digital life. It is true that your face is out in public all the time. A face in and of itself isn't a deep secret. Aacceptance by the Chinese public should not be surprising.

What may seem surprising is official ambivalence. That same article notes that the official Chinese press raised questions the very same weekend the telecom rules were rolled out.

The People's Daily on Saturday called for an investigation, saying one of its reporters had found face data could be found for sale on the Internet, with a package of 5,000 faces costing just 10 yuan ($1.42).

Buried in that report is a key to understanding the issue even for us prosopagnosiacs. In actual reality here is no computerized facial recognition. What we have is computerized comparisons of data files. The comparison is based on a very complex algorithmic definition of similarity (which, it is true, is inspired by how different digital representations of the same face are similar).

Data file comparisons I can understand.

But then ... that puts the entire question in the arena with credit card monitoring: "We know how you use your credit card!! So we will know when a bad actor steals your credit!!" My experience with that industry doesn't give me confidence in any analogous monitoring. My experience was that the only questioned payments were the ones which exactly matched my previous payment history. So I anticipate facial pattern algorithms will identify identical faces as being different people and probably the reverse.

It still leaves open the question of why governments and monopolies are so enamored with this technology. Perhaps they think it works "well enough". More likely, they believe it gives them cover for doing something else.

In the old days we could prove any lie by printing it on green bar paper -- then the standard medium for computer output. Now we need to claim a secret algorithm.

• https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-privacy/u-s-homeland-security-proposes-face-scans-for-citizens-idUSKBN1Y62JO
• https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-technology-explainer/chinas-facial-recognition-rollout-reaches-into-mobile-phones-shops-and-homes-idUSKBN1Y60MN