What’s Up Wednesday 8/28/19

Facial Recognition Technology – Good, Bad, Dangerous?

I read the other day about the FBI capture of MS-13 street gang member, Walter Yovany-Gomez.  Digital facial recognition technology at least impacted the outcome of that case.  And no question Yovany-Gomez is a terrible guy whose removal from the street should be celebrated (Gomez helped a fellow gang member to brutally murder a hapless associate whom the gang’s leadership decided was flirting with one of its rivals – the victim was stabbed seventeen times, his throat was slit with a rusty screwdriver, and for good measure he was beaten to a pulp with a baseball bat.  Cops responding to the crime scene (the victim was missing for a week before his body was discovered) initially believed that death had been caused by a shotgun blast – how badly this victim was damaged (Yovany-Gomez, to look at him, wouldn’t frighten anybody – he looks like the kid next door, somebody totally innocuous, certainly not an individual you would immediately take for a killer).  During his original attempted capture (a month after the killing occurred), Yovany-Gomez had foiled law enforcement officers by leaping from a second-story window.  He struck the grass below and vanished like a puff of vape smoke.  After six years on the run, in the fall of 2017 he was arrested.

Most of us would agree that the removal of a dangerous force like Walter Yovany-Gomez from our midst is a plus.  The case illustrates how facial recognition technology can be a useful as a law-enforcement tool in a manner that benefits all of us.

It appears as though ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has used similar facial recognition technology to scrutinize stacks of operators’ license photographs, attempting to identify potential illegal immigrants, in states that encourage those here illegally to pursue licenses.  The argument in favor of issuing these licenses is that it encourages folks to invest in the system (even if they don’t enjoy legal status yet), to take and pass a road test, maybe to obtain operators’ insurance after they have qualified for the road.  Currently there are thirteen states (plus the District of Columbia) that encourage illegal immigrants to obtain valid vehicle-operators’ licenses (mostly blue states interestingly enough): California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.  ICE has used documents, obtained legally by the individuals it targeted, and facial recognition technology to help it detain and deport many who, unlike Walter Yovany-Gomez, pose no danger to us.  At the same time, Israel has begun to monitor the identities of Palestinians who cross its border at West Bank checkpoints, a program that commenced last year (and it’s plenty controversial).  People making these West Bank border crossings can’t decide if the Israeli government was attempting (as it claimed) to reduce their wait times at the checkpoints or is blatantly invading their privacy.

Increasingly it is not simply national governments and their agencies that can access this technology.  Private entities, businesses and individuals with pockets deep enough can do exactly the same – at a very elevated level, a trend that can be frightening to consider.  There are two basic systems of facial recognition in the marketplace.  One is rudimentary and technologically speaking, not particularly new or state-of-the-art.  It captures an image of a person’s face and takes physical measurements of the facial construction – for example, software will use distance and other mathematical formulas to record the width of a person’s mouth and how the facial characteristics (i.e. cheekbones, nose, eyes, mouth, ears, etc.) relate spatially to one another.  Vectors of information are then stored in a database to be used for future comparisons.  A more complicated AI-based system is also available today.  System software utilizes algorithms to create a more accurate set of facial characteristics that can then be applied to a test subject (or a group of test subjects, what ICE was able to do).  This is a preferred system overall; it’s also too costly for most home and business owners.

One thing especially struck me as I read up on this technology.  Marketing by many of the “security” firms handling it could almost prove that the opponents of facial recognition technologies have a legitimate point, something to say, it could almost verify that the privacy concerns regarding facial recognition software are justified.  One company, for instance, offered management a way to spy on its employees for the sake of “time-tracking” and “attendance”.  Another peddled a software, designed for use by churches, to scour their congregations after services had commenced – in order to verify who in the flock was present.  A software designed by somebody that helps churches spy on their members.  It’s one thing for companies to distrust their employees.  When a place of worship cannot trust its own parishioners, lines of propriety, it seems to me, have been crossed.

There are two sides to this coin, clearly.  One good, the other not so good.  Here in the United States, we have become inured to being observed by the government, from afar and in general terms – we may not like all aspects of it, it hints at a certain unintended and stealthy forfeiture of our privacy, but we have grown to expect that it happens.  We accept such ubiquitous (if it isn’t gratuitous) observation of us at the supermarket and the bank, and we accept that our offspring are being watched by cameras at school (and mostly consider that a good thing as cameras can capture what human observation sometimes misses).  We accept that we are being watched with hawk-like acuteness inside airports and in certain government buildings, anyplace else that our “important” government figures work, play, argue and sling insults.

People in this country have become accustomed to some nuisances, and a morbid amount of surveillance is one of them.  As the freedom of privacy is recollected firsthand by fewer and fewer of us – there was a time in this country when we didn’t spend our lives on candid camera, or even expect to – we pay for it with the loss of our indignation and our outrage.

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