Big Brother: face life with biometric surveillance


HOW MANY of you are wearing a photo of a loved one? A real printed photo of your beloved child, partner or pet; the paper may be curling the edges, but the twinkle in their eyes is still visible.

Your photos are more likely to be stored on your smartphone or uploaded to a server; images of you, your family and your friends crisscrossing the cloud.

Vacation snapshots in a swimsuit. That unflattering selfie you thought you deleted; a grotesque portrait with more chins than the Hong Kong phone book.

Our faces may exist in cyberspace, but they still belong to us, don’t they?

Until recently, Facebook (and other image manipulation software) allowed us to tag the ones we knew in photos. In doing so, we unwittingly helped train and improve facial recognition algorithms.

By installing front cameras on our phones, companies have made us aware of the seemingly useful concept of using our faces as a key; we can passively unlock our devices without needing to remember another pesky number or password.

Many of you might be indifferent or even advocate for a national visual identification system, citing “if you have nothing to hide what’s wrong?” Covid-19 biometric vaccination passports can fall into this category.

But what if you just feel like getting out of the network and buying an indulgent bar of chocolate, flowers for your clandestine lover, or some booze without being digitally captured. It is much more difficult than it looks.

My own face showed disbelief the other day when, in the checkout supermarket, I realized that it wasn’t just my groceries that were being scanned.

Looking up from the basket, I saw my wide eyes staring at me from a screen above the cash register. What was happening? Why was my mundane transaction filmed and then projected onto me by intrusive technology?

In Before Times, you could go to a store, bring an item to the checkout, and pay in cash, all steps being anonymous.

No marketing analysis of loyalty cards; no contactless bank to leave a trace of digital breadcrumbs – and certainly not an unapproved image of my buying face.

Supermarkets say facial recognition technology allows them to minimize the impact of crime and improve staff safety.

The Office of the Information Commissioner is rightly concerned that the private sector is exploiting this technology in a quasi-law enforcement capacity; private surveillance systems in stores are not necessarily affiliated with the police.

This begs the question, if fingerprint and face identification data is to be collected, is it better to be done by the police or private companies? What about advice or social media platforms?

I remember when Big Brother’s seeing eye was all about science fiction, but this week I learned that in North Ayrshire kids queuing for school meals are only fed ‘once their compliant face has been scanned and verified by the robot dinner lady. Standardize children to biometric monitoring for such a mundane transaction? I’m not sure I can handle it.


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