Off Deadline: Does 'facial recognition' signal the ultimate end of personal privacy? | News | Palo Alto Online |


Off Deadline: Does 'facial recognition' signal the ultimate end of personal privacy?

New technology could replace FBI's famous fingerprint system

National TV news in June reported, rather enthusiastically I thought, that computer-based "facial recognition" may soon help speed airline passengers through the check-in security system.

"How cheaply we willingly sell our privacy" was my initial reaction.

This amazing new "Wow!" feature of our Tech Age is entirely predictable. It has in fact been predicted in sci-fi films and stories — as when the lead character of a fairly recent film walks through an airline terminal and is greeted by personalized advertisements on large screens along the way.

The erosion of personal privacy is not new. But it is as if our wonderful technology has found new ways of cutting deep channels, as in heavy downpours, in the past quarter century.

My interest in privacy was aroused by the 1991 "First Conference on Computer Freedom and Privacy," known as CFP1, held in Burlingame. The originator of CFP1 was a friend, Jim Warren, who lived atop Kings Mountain in Woodside until he moved to Port Townsend in Washington some years back.

Warren, an outspoken man who earlier founded the vastly successful West Coast Computer Faire so his friends in the computer world could show off their stuff, asked me to help with media relations for CFP1.

He called together a diverse group of about 40 people, including privacy zealots, computer nerds, academics, a couple of hackers, a libertarian or two, and a smattering of law-enforcement people. The latter included the deputy district attorney from Alameda County, who prosecuted the first successful "hacker/cracker" case, involving a fellow named John Draper, alias "Captain Crunch" online.

A "hacker" was considered someone who explored the potential of computers while a "cracker" was someone using computers for illegal entry and crimes, such as stealing identities and credit card information. In general usage, "hacker" now covers both.

There was negative sentiment among some organizers about inviting the media. One person said all "the press" wanted to cover about the Internet (then capitalized) and the World Wide Web was its potential for crime and sex. I said that that was because no one had effectively educated reporters and their editors about what was going on at places such as Stanford University and UC Berkeley.

After some outreach, nearly four score journalists attended at least part of the three days of presentations, interactive workshops and discussion sessions.

Two years later, after the CFP2 conference was held on the East Coast, I worked with then-chair Bruce Koball of Berkeley and others on CFP3. At one planning session, I commented that a good friend's response to my mentioning the upcoming conference was an emphatic, "I'm not interested in computers!"

Koball responded instantly: "Well, she may not be interested in computers but there are a lot of computers interested in her." With gender references neutralized to "you," that became the motto of CFP3, printed on T-shirts under the image of a large keyhole with an eyeball peeking through. (I still have a faded one — about as faded as the war to preserve privacy, perhaps.)

Today we carry that keyhole in our cellphone holsters. It also can reside in our wallet cards and home-security systems and even our TVs. Can our high-tech TVs really look back at us? Wow. Stuff of conspiracy-theory paranoia — way beyond George Orwell's oppressive sci-fi vision in "1984."

But back to the facial recognition that is, ahem, literally staring us in the face — starting with airline security.

I am not a "conspiracy theory" person and approach such theories with heavy journalistic skepticism. But ... does anyone seriously doubt that facial recognition technology will not spread like a California wildfire among every sector that has an interest in identifying people? Those include everyone whom in the early 1990s I termed the "10,000 Little Big Brothers" in marketing and political influencing, now an international phenomenon. (I now wonder if we have surpassed 100,000 LBBs worldwide.)

Up to now, a core test of privacy rights vs. invasion was whether compiling information is done on everyone or just on those who might be suspected of some nefarious activity. Note the "might" in that sentence.

Early CFP planners have expressed in recent years that the war for privacy protection has been lost. There was frustration in the early 1990s that the general public didn't rise to the concern of those watching from inside the tech world, and that people seemed to either give away (as in Facebook and other social media postings) or sell chunks of their privacy cheaply, as in minuscule giveaways and coupons or access to games.

That lack of interest may have been due to a general feeling of helplessness. If one is a grain of sand on a vast, worldwide beach of technology, can one have any effect when the waves are already upon us?

In September 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI's "Next Generation Identification," or NGI, had become fully operational nationally after five years of development work. Through an "Interstate Photo System," or IPS, law-enforcement agencies (and possibly other interested groups) could search through FBI databases of images for potential criminal identities, or just identities.

The system would replace the FBI's famous fingerprint system.

But ... something like 4.3 million of the 52 million images would be of individuals not suspected of any form of wrongdoing. The images were taken for some purpose such as employment identification — not far short of 10 percent, and likely to grow.

For several decades now our technology has far outstripped the ability of Congress or state legislatures and administrations to keep up with changing the law to guide how such information could or should be used.

A vigorous rear-guard action on privacy is still being spearheaded nationally by a group known as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, formed about the time of the early CFP conferences. EFF has expressed concerns about the new facial-recognition/identification capability and who would have access to the database, citing the high number of non-suspect people who would be in it and the lack of guidance about who will have access to it.

But who's heard of EFF? And can a sand castle or two stop the tide?

Former Weekly editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at


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5 people like this
Posted by scary future
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 9, 2017 at 3:21 pm

Count me among the paralyzed "grains of sand".
I have long been a protector of my own on-line privacy. And it has become a more and more difficult battle.
Now the privacy issues aren't even a matter of choice or opting-in. Unless the only way to opt-out now is too completely vacate the modern world. Don't use airports, don't step outside on public steets.

It's all become too big and intimidating. And of course the younger generation just doesn't even think privacy is "a Thing".

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