It is officially the end of anonymity. We are surrounded by cameras, speakers and a host of other smart devices that monitor us in real-time, all the time. Recognition systems use hundreds of different data points to identify and monitor us and to predict our likely future actions both online and in the physical world.
Recognition systems, whether they use our voices, faces or fingerprints, are wildly popular for good reason. There is tremendous value in all of this discoverability. Persistent recognition allows companies to learn more about consumers and provide them with a level of personalization that could not possibly be achieved at scale any other way. Predictive recognition systems help law enforcement agencies keep track of criminals and prevent their next offense. Responsive recognition technologies understand context and interact with us accordingly: They’re starting to empathize with us when we’re sad, and express enthusiasm when we’re excited.
Our current digital economy is transactional, built on e-commerce, the transfer of data, and automating business processes. What new business models will be needed for our recognition economy?
Governments, law enforcement agencies and others are interested in getting access to all of this data for a variety of reasons. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have each used images from state license databases to build a powerful facial recognition system. While police in the U.S. have access to biometric data (fingerprints and DNA) from people who’ve been arrested, this image recognition system includes residents who have never been charged with a crime. Whereas someone who has been arrested knows their photo and fingerprints have been taken, U.S. residents are not informed when their driver license photos are being entered into a database and used with machine learning algorithms. Privacy laws differ in every local jurisdiction in the U.S., and they lag behind technology significantly. The cities of Oakland, San Francisco, and Somerville, Massachusetts passed laws banning city departments—including police—from using facial recognition software.
Meanwhile, airports are beginning to test face recognition technology. At JetBlue e-gates, travelers must allow their faces to be scanned before they board planes. In Atlanta, Delta’s biometric terminal uses faces—rather than printed or mobile boarding cards—throughout the check-in and boarding process. While technically U.S. citizens have the right to opt out, flying can be a stressful experience, especially when there are complications like delays. As a result, travelers have been trading liberties for conveniences and the opportunity to make air travel less fraught and more efficient.
Companies and governments are collecting data on the general public, and the data security systems of these organizations have exhibited significant vulnerabilities. In 2019, a line of agencies and firms, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Capital One and State Farm, suffered data breaches. In July 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion after a yearlong investigation into the company’s business practices and advertising model. Commissioner Rohit Chopra wrote a stunning dissent: “Facebook’s violations were a direct result of the company’s behavioral advertising business model. Facebook flagrantly violated the FTC’s 2012 order by deceiving its users and allowing pay-for-play data harvesting by developers. The company’s behavioral advertising business, which monetizes user behavior through mass surveillance, contributed to these violations. Cambridge Analytica’s tactics of profiling and targeting users were a small-scale reflection of Facebook’s own practices… The case against Facebook is about more than just privacy—it is also about the power to control and manipulate. Global regulators and policymakers need to confront the dangers associated with mass surveillance and the resulting ability to control and influence us. The behavioral advertising business incentives of technology platforms spur practices that are dividing our society. The harm from this conduct is immeasurable, and regulators and policymakers must confront it.”
Smart technology is everywhere: in our cars, homes, offices and pockets—we are literally surrounded by it. Plus, many of our daily activities require some form of biometric recognition. The more commonplace this recognition technology becomes, the harder it will be to regulate it, despite such efforts gaining momentum in the U.S. and Europe. Local city governments can try to ban Face ID on iPhones, but what about all of the other personal data being transmitted? With today’s technology, do you really think a company needs a camera to see who we are and what we’re doing?
Google’s Project Jacquard, Google’s Project Soli, Google’s Recorder App, JetBlue, Kontakt.io’s Bluetooth Card Beacon, LG, Osram, Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, Nvidia, Road Wise, Samsung, SpotterEDU, State Farm, Tencent, Twitter, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, University of Arizona’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of California-Santa Barbara, Vanderbilt University, Waitrose.
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