Facial recognition may be dangerous. We need to recognize it and face the risk.
Amazon, known as an online store, has produced at least three things that have made the news in recent years: Kindle (the electronic book), the richest man in the world (Jeff Bezos) and controversy. The latest in the last category is Rekognition, Amazon’s face recognition technology, which, as Engadget reports, is being adopted by police forces with no accountability to the public.
Stories like this can help us to understand the degree to which the connected universe we now live in is dominated by the notion of recognition. Just think of all your logins, programs recognizing who you are. This is where the detective work of recognition begins but not where it ends. Thanks to scandals such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica affair, we know that the increasingly “intelligent” tools that are tracking us have a growing capacity for recognizing not just people, but an endless number of real or merely surmised attributes of those people.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The required first step before harassment, exploitation and persecution can be effectively engaged
There is good reason for concern that face recognition technology, however supposedly intelligent, could make mistakes with serious legal consequences. Most vulnerable are minorities because of the way face recognition is designed.
Orlando Police chief John Mina “said he would share the locations of the public cameras equipped with Rekognition, but the department later declined to divulge that info, citing ‘security risks.’ Mina also said that he doesn’t know whether those cameras’ footage are uploaded to any Amazon server.”
The pattern is becoming familiar. First, the parties deny any allegation that the system is anywhere near as invasive as accused. Everyone remembers the example of James Clapper denying under oath before the Senate intelligence committee that the National Security Agency engaged in data collection on American citizens. And although the evidence emerged to prove that Clapper was lying, he was never even accused of perjury. The certitude of impunity helps to encourage the disingenuous testimony of those in a position of authority.
When found to be lying and pressed for details, the authorities claim that their silence is justified by “security risks.” This ultimately means that any illegal action done in the name of security may blithely ignore the question of constitutional rights on the grounds that revealing the breach could compromise its very goal: security. Chief Mina then took the logic one step further, using what may be called the Zuckerberg strategy, by claiming that he doesn’t know what the system actually does, at least on the Amazon side. This is intended to leave the impression that there can’t be a problem because only technicians, with no ulterior political motives, would have a clear idea of what the particular system is doing.
Some people remember when Amazon simply sold books. Most people think of Amazon nowadays as selling everything, which in itself isn’t true because Amazon also works as a neutral platform rewarded, through a fee, for letting other people buy and sell everything under the sun.
In fact, Amazon does a lot of other things people don’t know about or don’t wish to think about. That’s what powerful tech companies specialized in monopolistic occupation of markets tend to do. Because of their wealth and powerful infrastructure, companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have an uncontrollable and practically unlimited capacity to create and dominate multiple marketplaces. But unlike traditional corporations that manufactured goods and distributed them to the public, these companies use the products they have created to accumulate information about users (and even non-users), data that they have learned to exploit in a variety of ways, some of them still being invented.
Amazon is currently considered the favorite to win a massive cloud-computing contract with the Pentagon. Amazon Web Services already has huge contracts with the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Becoming the supplier of the critical systems of the military, intelligence and even local police puts Amazon at the core of the military-industrial complex. This story highlights two compelling historical trends: the unchecked power of “innovative” monopolistic private enterprises and the uncontrollable growth of the surveillance state.
Though systematically denied in the name of free markets, America’s state capitalism compares to China’s while contrasting in one important way. The Chinese government maintains control over its industry. The US government hands over both its taxpayer-funded R&D and its complex defensive infrastructure to private companies, making the nation dependent on their technology, while at the same time enriching the private sector’s control over massive amounts of data, to say nothing of its role in consolidating virtual monopoly positions.
The refusal to recognize the actual nature of the ever expanding military-industrial complex could eventually be overcome by inventing, not face recognition software, but an exciting new product: political problem recognition software. But what company would take the lead on that?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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