[EAS]Faces and Privacy

pjk peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Thu Feb 1 02:09:59 EST 2001

Subject:   Faces and Privacy

Dear Colleagues -

In the second article below (from 1999), Phil Agre gives a spirited
prediction of a catalyst for an upwelling of privacy concern, a
"Privacy Chernobyl". He is speaking of automatic face recognition.

We are moving further toward that concern. In the last issue of the
EPIC Alert (EPIC=Electronic Privacy Information Center, in
Washington, D.C.) <http://www.epic.org/alert/EPIC_Alert_8.02.html>
is a book review and further mention of this looming issue. At the
2001 Super Bowl at least 100,000 spectator faces were automatically
digitized for matching against a database of terrorists and
criminals. [The EPIC item follows immediately below.] In Britain,
such programs have been running for at least 2-3 years in certain
London areas, using cameras mounted at street intersections.

What Cardinal Wolsey (1475?-1530) said about your head "Be very,
very careful what you put into that head, because you will never,
ever get it out", probably applies equally to your head becoming
part of these large databases, without your knowledge or consent.

   --Peter Kindlmann

P.E.A.C.E.: A Novel by Guy Holmes


P.E.A.C.E: A Novel by Guy Holmes presents a world in which anti-crime
video surveillance cameras are strategically placed on street corners,
airports, train stations, apartment and office complexes.  The video
surveillance system is known as P.E.A.C.E. (Police Enforced Anti-Crime
Environment) and matches faces with a database of known criminals.

The book presents P.E.A.C.E. as a novel approach to crime fighting.
However, the system soon becomes more than a crime fighting aid, it
becomes a tool for oppressive surveillance and political control.

Fantasy?  Not quite.  At least 100,000 spectators arriving through the
gates at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to watch the 2001 Super Bowl
were subject to a similar surveillance system, according to the St.
Petersburg Times.  What is presented as futuristic fiction by Guy
Holmes is now state-of-the-art for police. Super Bowl spectators had
their faces scanned and digitized and matched against a database of
criminals and terrorist suspects.  Plans are afoot to use similar
systems for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

For other books recommended by EPIC, browse the EPIC Bookshelf at:


[from archive at

by Phil Agre, UCLA

Many people have remarked on the discrepancy between the very high
levels of concern about electronic privacy invasion that Americans
express in opinion polls and the lack of any great political
movement to protect privacy.  Various explanations have been
offered for this phenomenon.  A favorite of the information
traffickers is that privacy regulations would not fit with the
laissez-faire individualism of American culture.  This deep fact
about American culture must explain why 70%+, and in some cases
95%+, of Americans opine in favor of such regulations when someone
actually asks their opinion.  Privacy activists, for their part,
often point to the nebulous character of the problem.  With
environmental pollution you can at least see the smoke and oily
seabirds, but with invasions of privacy the information flows
silently, out of sight, and then you can't figure out how they got
your name, much less which opportunities never knocked because of
the bad information in your file.  But get a couple beers in them
and they will fantasize about what they call "Privacy Chernobyl" --
the one privacy outrage that will finally catalyze an effective
social movement around the issue.

My candidate for Privacy Chernobyl is the widespread deployment in
public places of automatic face recognition.  Industrial-strength
face recognition is almost here.  Digital cameras are almost free,
many public spaces are already festooned with them, the control
rooms to monitor them already exist, and the bureaucracies that
prosper by multiplying them are already in place.  State
governments have built digitized databases of photographs of
people's faces -- captured for purposes of creating drivers'
licenses and then spread around at US government expense for other
purposes (Washington Post, 1/22/99 and 2/18/99).  The needed
computational power will become cost-effective over the next few
years.  What's to stop it?  Once the possibilities become clear,
reporters will call college professors on the phone and say, "I
want to write about the privacy aspects of this, but my editor says
it isn't a story until someone gets hurt".  College professors will
reply, "once people start getting hurt by this it will be too late
to stop it".  They will resolve to revisit the issue in a year.

The consequences are so vast that they need to be explained slowly.
Any organization that has access to the database of face photos
will be able to stick a camera anyplace it wants, and it will know
the names and identifiers of all the people who go past.  Gaze in
the window of the jewelry store and you'll get personalized junk
mail for diamonds.  Go to a part of town where your kind isn't
thought to belong and you'll end up on a list somewhere.  Attend a
political meeting and end up on another list.  Walk into a ritzy
boutique and the clerk will have your credit report and purchase
history before even saying hello.  People you don't know will start
greeting you by name.  Lists of the people you've been seen with
will start appearing on the Internet.  The whole culture will
undergo convulsions as taken- for-granted assumptions about the
construction of personal identity in public places suddenly become
radically false.  Pundits will take note.  Doonesbury will devote a
Sunday comic to the problem.  Yet it will be argued that nothing
has really changed, that public places are public, that your face
has always been visible to anyone with a camera, and that you can
hardly prevent someone from recognizing you as you walk down the
street.  Besides, what do you have to hide?

And that's just the start.  Wait a little while, and a market will
arise in "spottings": if I want to know where you've been, I'll
have my laptop put out a call on the Internet to find out who has
spotted you.  Spottings will be bought and sold in automated
auctions, so that I can build the kind of spotting history I need
for the lowest cost. Entrepreneurs will purchase spottings in bulk
to synthesize spotting histories for paying customers.  Your daily
routine will be known to anyone who wants to pay five bucks for it,
and your movement history will determine your fate just as much as
your credit history does now. Prominent firms that traffic in
personal movement patterns will post privacy policies that sound
nice but mean little in practice, not least because most of the
movement trafficking will be conducted by companies that nobody has
ever heard of, and whose brand names will not be affected by the
periodic front-page newspaper stories on the subject.  They will
all swear on a stack of Bibles that they respect everyone's
privacy, but within six months every private investigator in the
country will find a friend-of-a-brother-in-law who happens to know
someone who works for one of the obscure companies that sells
movement patterns, and the data will start to ooze out onto the

Then things will really get bad.  Personal movement records will be
subpoenaed, irregularly at first, just when someone has been
kidnapped, but then routinely, as every divorce lawyer in the
country reasons that subpoenas are cheap and not filing them is
basically malpractice. Then, just as we're starting to get used to
this, a couple of people will get killed by a nut who been
predicting their movements using commercially available movement
patterns.  Citizens will be outraged, but it will indeed be too
late.  The industry will have built a public relations machine
which will now swing into action by communicating the benefits of
movement tracking (which will have gotten a new name that connotes
safety and intimacy rather than spying and deceit). All celebrities
who could give the movement-tracking industry a hard time will
quietly be assured that their faces have been removed from the
database.  Forbes will publish an article, based on material from
an industry-funded think tank, that denounces "hysteria" and mocks
the neurotic paternalism of the privacy weirdos.

Campaign contributions will pour in.  A member of the Federal Trade
Commission will express concerns on the matter, build a network
among industry executives, give speeches at industry association
meetings, call elaborate hearings, generate a lot of publicity,
wait a couple of months, issue a report that whitewashes the
hearings and recommends voluntary self-regulation, step down from
the commission, and found a lobbying group that represents the
movement-tracking industry.  Masks will become fashionable,
pioneered at first by "face-hackers" but then moving into the
mainstream.  Facial piercings will now be useful for something, and
quick-release mask fasteners will go through several rounds of
product recalls.  A third-rate fashion designer will become famous
for about two minutes by putting masks on his runway models. Bill
Gates will be spotted walking into saloons and road houses from
coast to coast.  Conspiracy groups will go bonkers.  President
McCain will release a hundred pages of his movement history.  The
editors of Mondo 2000 will claim to have predicted the whole thing
back in 1988. And at long last, normal Americans, their patience
having been worn clean out, will get pissed off at the whole stupid
thing.  Privacy Chernobyl will now finally have arrived.  The
revolution will begin.

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