Our mugs are unique in many ways. That ellipsoidal-to-spherical thing resting atop your neck is unique to you, and that includes cases of identical twins. A couple eyes, ears, brows, and nostrils join the solo acts of mouth, nose, and chin to populate the orchestra of anatomy, which if you’re lucky enjoys the warmth and protection of a mop of hair. Our faces uniquely can identify us in a casual manner, such as when you pass a friend on the street. They’re unique also, thanks to technology, in that they alongside fingerprints, the eyeball, and a scientific rendering of our voices, can be used to identify us even to strangers.
The face is so unique in fact that poets and novelists have written about this public identifier and its allusions. Walt Whitman, on the more upbeat side of things, advised us to “Keep your face always toward the sunshine, so shadows will fall behind you.” Orwell, on the other hand, also acknowledged the power of the face: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stomping on your face forever.”
For decades, our faces have foreclosed false alibis, founded guilt despite claims of innocence, and provided us passage through electronically controlled doorways. The latter use of the cuts of our respective jibs likely also came into focus by Orwell’s imagination, sagacity, and fear.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office drafted a report to Congress this month entitled FACIAL RECOGNTION TECHNOLOGY: Current and Planned Uses by Federal Agencies. It canvassed the 24 agencies—e.g., Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, State Dept., Social Security, et al—that form a common group for such studies. Three-fourths of them already utilize some form of facial recognition technology, one of which, by State, has been the subject of Times-Tribune pieces that informed you of some fascinating national security work going on right here in the Tri-county.
In one sense, we’re behind the curve in governmental leverage of our faces’ uniqueness. Some years ago in this column I shared about China’s pervasive use of the technology as proven by a BBC reporter’s experiences. He was developing a story about FRT and China’s law enforcement use of it to locate criminals (among other uses?). The experiment was only known to him and a couple high-ranking police officials. In Beijing, the capital densely populated with over 24 million, he wandered the streets rather aimlessly while the two law enforcement “co-conspirators” arranged to feed his facial image into their criminal database as “wanted.” With its thousands of FRT cameras, and access to private CCTV systems that seems foreign to our senses of police power, it took no more than around seven or eight minutes for the reporter to be cornered by local police. He was unscathed and the experiment was successful in that it showed the quasi-Orwellian results of policing powers being boosted through technology. The ethical debates could still be ongoing these years later, and I hope they are likewise being engaged in Washington after reading the GAO report.
Our governmental uses of FRT, bona fide as they’re intended to be, fall into three basic categories as digested from 18 federal agencies’ current practices (among other uses?) described in the study. Facial recognition is being used for physical security purposes, for cybersecurity and digital access purposes, or for law enforcement ends.
Five of our federal agencies utilize FRT to maintain physical security. The technologies might be monitoring a physical space seeking a “hit” on a subject who’s part of a watchlist, as one example. Another function of physical security comes through FRT functioning as a door lock, of sorts, only allowing verified faces to gain entry to a secured location.
Of the 18 agencies that currently use FRT, all but two put the technology in place for cybersecurity or digital access purposes. One of the most commonplace versions in this category may be part of your own security protocols: accessing a smartphone by way of FR. This is also how “govvies” protect their devices issued by Uncle Sam. Another way is less familiar to you or me. Some hyper-critical, security-configured, and non-public-facing websites require a registered face to be presented before granting access. That’s some movie-styled tech, eh? As always, please remember that as soon as some protective measures are put into place, including FRT, the bad actors begin trying to reverse-engineer and sidestep them.
The third main way that FRT helps U.S. government agencies surrounds law enforcement, and particularly domestic law enforcement lest we get into a diplomatic brouhaha by venturing into the private lives of foreigners. Nah. We’ll stick to our own citizenry for such intrusions. Like the Beijing experiment demonstrated, FRT can be useful to crime-stoppers and crime-solvers. Six of the 18 federal agencies reported this type of FRT use. It is claimed, and I’m not going to confirm or refute it, that the first “mug shots” were taken by Belgian police bookers in the mid-19th century. London and New York City quickly followed, and private firms began using them on “WANTED” posters within a few years as well. Like crime itself, mug shots are still part and parcel to police work. The newer nexus between faces and law enforcement looks to the victims, too. Nowadays, agencies utilize FRT to confirm the identity of an exploited child, for example, by comparing an image to databases of publicly available images, such as from social media. Read your Terms of Service agreements at Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and the gang if you think you did not agree to have your images made available for these and many, many other purposes.
The Departments of Justice and Defense appear as the most prolific users, which seems appropriate, if any use is. To me, your self-described trained ethicist, the lingering question isn’t how FRT is used, but whether it should be, when, and by whom.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.