In Fear Of Facial Recognition

One of the features that was added to the technology mix during the period between the purchase of my old phone and the purchase of my new iPhone is facial recognition software.  During the set-up process at the Verizon store, I held the iPhone as if I were looking at messages, moved my head from side to side and up and down until the phone had acquired about a 270-degree look at my head and indicated that it had seen enough, and the facial recognition feature was activated.

facialrecognition_1-672x372Now, whenever I pick up the phone, the software kicks in automatically and substitutes for the entry of passcodes.  It’s pretty amazing technology, really, and it’s a lot faster and less clumsy than the passcode-entry process.  I really like the convenience element.

But . . . as a result of this Apple has got my face memorized and digitized and stored somewhere.  And, the modern tech sector world of information-selling and data-trading being what it is, who knows who else now has the capability to instantaneously identify my less-than-noble features.  My cell phone service provider?  Every Apple subsidiary and affiliate and technology partner?  The FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Security, or some Russian or Chinese hackers?

Recently San Francisco passed a ban on the use of facial recognition software by police and other agencies, and other cities are considering similar legislation.  The proponents of such measures tout them as a victory for privacy and a safeguard against governmental overreach that could conceivably allow governmental agencies to track citizens as they go about their daily lives.  Opponents note that facial recognition software can help the authorities solve crimes — as the article notes, the technology was used to identify a mass shooting suspect last year — and that it can help to secure our borders and airports.

I’ve long since concluded that while privacy is nice, in the modern world you have to make countless choices that can affect your privacy in different ways.  Do you pay with a credit card that tracks your purchases, or cash?  Do you use a cell phone that keeps track of your location?  Do you participate in social media and share some of your life through Facebook, Twitter, and the countless other outlets?  Have you traveled outside of the U.S. recently and returned to the country using one of those passport and facial scanning re-entry terminals?  It’s hard to argue, too, that a face that you show to the world each day, that appears on your driver’s license, and that is captured regularly by the various surveillance cameras positioned throughout American society, is something that is extraordinarily private.

All things considered, I’m not too troubled by the use of facial recognition software.  It’s the protection of other highly personal information — such as health information and financial information — that is of much more concern to me.

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Cash Culture

If you take flights on certain airlines, you have heard the announcements that they only accept credit cards if you want to buy a snack box or adult beverage. I always wonder how that can be — aren’t greenbacks legal tender that must be accepted everywhere? How can you deny someone who wants to pay with cash?

So I’ve been happy to go to a few places recently — like this taqueria in Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood — that not only accept paper money, they require that you pay with it. But why do they apologize for that policy? The retailer doesn’t have to pay credit card fees, and the purchaser doesn’t have to sign little slips and worry about whether their card data will be hacked. There’s a pleasing, old-school anonymity to paying with folding money that has new-age privacy benefits, too.

In some places, cash is still king. No apologies necessary!

The Sap Test

The story of Cambridge Analytica is an interesting one.  Mother Jones has a fascinating article on how the British firm came to America making big promises to provide in-depth voter profile data and targeted marketing to Republican presidential campaigns — including the Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump campaigns — and not really delivering on its big promises.  Along the way, Cambridge Analytica got Facebook into trouble, because Cambridge claimed to “harvest” Facebook’s user profiles and other data to “exploit” what was known about them and to “target their inner demons.”

d40It’s a good read on several levels.  There’s a bit of a thrill in seeing, again, that political masterminds can be played for saps, and it’s always a rewarding reaffirmation of democratic values to read how people’s contributions to political campaigns are spent — or in this case, misspent — on efforts to manipulate voter views and carefully position candidates to appeal to them.  That the Cambridge Analytica big promises apparently went largely unfulfilled doesn’t alter the fact that political campaigns paid it huge amounts of money precisely to provide the kind of information that would permit the campaigns to appeal to voter biases and prejudices and preexisting views — in short, to “target their inner demons.”  And let’s not kid ourselves, either:  Cambridge Analytica was working for Republican candidates in 2016, but Democratic candidates no doubt hired similar research firms and consultants to try to use data to warp voter views in the opposite direction.  It’s worth thinking about that the next time you’re asked to contribute money in response to the latest in the endless fundraising appeals we get from candidates.

But there’s another good lesson lurking in the Cambridge Analytica story, too — about how apparently innocent “personality tests” and other social media staples can be used to assemble masses of data about millions of Americans that can then be used in totally unknown ways.  Every time you respond to the command on one of those annoying “like if you agree” or “share if you agree” posts, or take a “test” to show that you’re one of the people who would be able to identify TV stars from the ’80s, you are creating data that somebody is storing, accessing, counting, analyzing, and then using to develop targeted ads for products — or, potentially, some kind of targeted political message that is supposed to appeal to your likes, dislikes, and demographic category based on the data that you’ve voluntarily provided.

The Cambridge Analytica story, and what it tells us about the data being provided, is food for thought the next time you’re considering disclosing a little piece of your personal information in response to a Facebook quiz or other social media meme.  It would probably be better for everyone if saps like us keep the information about those “inner demons” under wraps.

REAL ID

The other day I was in line to pass through security at the Columbus airport when I saw a sign announcing that, effective January 22, 2018, drivers’ licenses from certain states will not be accepted at TSA checkpoints as appropriate identification.  According to the sign, licenses from Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana and Washington are not compliant with something called the REAL ID Act.

REAL ID Act?  Of course, the name brought back memories of high school days, when your more daring classmates would proudly if furtively show you the fake ID they had acquired (featuring, of course, a name other than “McLovin”) in hopes of buying beer at the local carryout.  The TSA sign seemed kind of weird, and I found myself wondering why the federal government has a problem with the licensed issued by the “m” states . . . and Washington. So I followed the instructions on the sign and went to the tsa.gov website to see what it was all about.

It turns out that in 2005 Congress passed something called the REAL ID Act.  The Act establishes certain federally mandated minimum security standards governing issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards by states, and if the states are non-compliant, their licenses won’t be accepted for certain federal purposes — like passing through the federally operated security checkpoint at domestic airports.   (You also will need a REAL ID Act compliant drivers’ license if you want to get into a nuclear power plant, in case you were wondering.)  Ohio and a number of states are already compliant, still other states have received extensions to become compliant, and the four “m” states are noncompliant.

Why are some states resisting?  According to a member of the Maine state legislature, it’s because of concerns about privacy and the possibility that the Department of Homeland Security could interlink the information from the state drivers’ license bureaus to create a national identity database.  She also states that, to get a REAL ID drivers license, individuals must have their photograph taken with facial recognition software and have documents like a certified birth certificate and original social security card scanned into a database, where it will be kept for seven years — and, she notes, potentially would be accessible to hackers who are constantly trying to get to confidential personal information.  Her description of the bill, and the reasons for her opposition, ends on this ominous note: “And how much do you trust the federal government?”

I’m as interested in privacy as the next person, but it’s hard for me to get too excited about the REAL ID law.  Obviously, there is a need for identification cards, and all of the information that is collected as part of the REAL ID process seems to be already in possession of the federal and state governments, anyway.  I’m quite confident that the federal government knows what I look like (or could find out with a few strokes of a keyboard), facial recognition photos or not.  And since I have to fly frequently for my job, I need to have an ID card that gets me through security — so I’m glad Ohio licenses are compliant.

It’s troubling to think that people are so distrustful of the federal government that they would be concerned about a database that included photos and basic identification information, like Social Security numbers, that people routinely disclose on things like tax returns.  It says something about the fraying relationship between the government and the governed that the question of appropriate identification could be so controversial.

The End Of Privacy As We Know It

The right to personal privacy isn’t a right that is specifically recognized in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but it has been a recognized area of the law for decades, as well as a treasured ideal for many Americans.  For many people, the right to be left alone is an important one.

But this is another area where technology is simply changing the game.  Whether it is cookies left on personal computers that lead to pop-up ads that are specifically targeted to your website viewings, search engines that can sift through mounds of news stories, photos, and data in split seconds whenever a name is entered, tracking mechanisms on cell phones, surveillance cameras on every street corner, drones in the air, computer hacking, or listening devices that are routinely used by governmental entities, technology makes the ability to maintain some zone of privacy harder and harder.

20130203_adde1Social media also has had a significant impact.  Anyone who likes the convenience of Facebook as a way to keep in touch with their old friends, family members and colleagues is giving up a piece of their privacy.  And when technology and social media meet, the erosion can become even more pronounced.

Consider the news that a software developer has used the advances in facial recognition software to develop an app that allows you to take a photo of a stranger in a public place and immediately run a search for the identity of that person through Facebook.  It’s called Facezam, and it’s apparently going to launch on March 21, although Facebook is raising questions about whether the software is in compliance with the Facebook privacy policy.  But even if Facebook quashes the idea as to Facebook, you would imagine that the app could be modified to be applied to search through other sources of photos.

It’s creepy to think that random strangers, simply by taking your picture in a public place and unbeknownst to you, could then find out who you are and, if they’re so inclined, track you down.  One person in the story linked above describes that concept as the end of anonymity in public places, and I think that’s right.  If you want to guard against it, you can withdraw from any social media, refuse to get your photo taken, avoid going out in public except in disguise, avoid any travel, and stay in your room.  Those aren’t especially attractive options, are they?

Welcome to the Brave New World!

 

Body Shaming And Social Shaming

Earlier this year Playboy model Dani Mathers got into trouble.  She took a photo of a naked woman in the locker room at her gym and posted it on Snapchat with a snide and mocking comment about the woman’s appearance.

dann_2The reaction to Mathers’ Snapchat was immediate and overwhelming.  She got kicked out of LA Fitness for life for violating a firm policy against photography in locker rooms, and the gym also reported her to police.  She lost a long-standing radio gig.  And Mathers faced withering criticism on social media for “body shaming” an unsuspecting older woman who was just at the gym for an innocent workout.  Mathers apologized, saying that she knew that body shaming was wrong and that the ill-advised posting of the photo was not an indication of the kind of person she was.  And there the story seemed to end.

But now there are reports that the woman Mathers photographed, who previously had not been identified, has come forward and spoken to police to indicate that she would be willing to testify against Mathers, and the LA city attorney’s office is reviewing the case.  Should Mathers be prosecuted for violating the woman’s privacy?  Under California law, taking a photo of someone in a private setting in which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

It’s not an easy question, because Mathers’ Snapchat gibe stirs up some strong emotions. It was a callous display of precisely the kind of airheaded contemptuousness and sense of superiority that normal people associate with the brainless “beautiful people.”  Mathers has all day to work out and stay fit; she makes her living solely on the basis of her appearance.  Most of us don’t have that luxury.  We have to work, and we don’t have personal trainers and dietitians and assistants to help us keep the weight off.  And when we do get to the gym, we shouldn’t have to put up with mean-spirited mockery from the hard body brigade.  On the other hand, though, should hardworking prosecutors be spending time on privacy issues rather than prosecuting more serious crimes?

In this case, I would leave it up to the woman whose privacy was so appallingly violated.  The California law was written to protect her rights, and if she wants to bring charges I think the prosecutor should follow her lead.  She may well decide to be kind — kinder, certainly, than Mathers was in sending her Snapchat in the first place — and accept Mathers’ apology.  In either case, Mathers should be the one who is ashamed.  And we should give some thought to who people like Mathers really are the next time we see some pretty face endorsing a product or a politician.

The FBI Director And His Webcam

The FBI has taken a strong stance on the ability of law enforcement and anti-terrorism concerns to trump individual privacy interests.  Its position on requiring Apple to develop a back door through its iPhone encryption protection is just part of a larger concern about privacy advocates hampering the FBI’s ability to catch crooks and killers.

The FBI Director, James Comey, gave a speech this week at Kenyon College where he sounded many of those same themes.  But then he admitted that, on his personal laptop, he’s put a piece of black tape over the camera so no one can hack into his computer and watch him.  After all, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that somebody, somewhere, might want to watch you through your laptop camera — the FBI itself has developed surveillance software that apparently allows the agency to do just that.

hqdefaultThe notion that the director of the FBI is worried about surveillance on his laptop and put some black tape over his webcam has provoked a lot of reaction on social media, from privacy advocates gleefully saying “I told you so” to paranoid anti-government types seeing Comey’s admission as evidence that the FBI, the NSA, the CIA and the other members of the alphabet soup of American security agencies routinely spy on each other.  And it by  pretty ironic, when you think about it — and pretty funny that the anti-surveillance tool Comey decided to use is a simple strip of duct tape.

But Comey’s reaction also is instructive, and illustrates some apparent hypocrisy.  People who worry about their privacy and governmental overreach are chided for not helping to catch the bad guys and told that if they’ve done nothing wrong they’ve got nothing to worry about — but then even the FBI director takes a basic step to protect his own privacy against unwanted intrusion.  He thinks he hasn’t done anything wrong, and he doesn’t like the idea of somebody spying on him.  He might rationalize it as protection against hacking by a terrorist cell, or a rogue foreign government, rather than concern about surveillance by his own government, but the principle is the same.  If an unhackable iPhone might “hinder law enforcement” in certain circumstances, couldn’t a strip of black tape over a laptop webcam prove to be a hindrance at some point, too?

I’m with the privacy advocates on this one — and Comey’s own actions help to say why.