“That means that in the next few years (maybe much sooner), any camera that sees you will know who you are. You are your face, and your face is public. If not today, then very, very soon.” — Aaron Saenz
Your face is currently under renovation. You won’t see the change in a mirror, but looking around closely you may catch a glimpse of what’s happening. No longer merely the canvas where you express who you are, your face is now what semiotics terms a sign. What once was ‘yours’ exclusively today is “something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity.” This sign, your face, now functions as an interface—“a point of interaction between components … [in] both hardware and software.”
Consider a few recent developments in the coming face-off over identity and access:
The new Samsung Smart TV has a built-in camera with facial recognition technology. It recognizes the face of the person watching and goes to channels and web applications they program as favorites.
DARPA wants to supplant computer passwords by reading users’ minds. Capturing what they call your “cognitive fingerprint,” today this initiative focuses on individual keystrokes but may expand in DARPA’s Active Authentication program to include facial recognition and other supporting biometric data.
Face Unlock, a new screen-lock option now lets you unlock your Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) device using face recognition. It takes advantage of the device’s front-facing camera and state-of-the-art facial recognition technology to register a face during setup, and then to recognize it again when unlocking the device. You hold the device in front of your face to unlock.
Like the price of gold in a bearish stock market, the value of this face-sign is going up. The face market is hot because while other global currencies are deflating, face is undergoing a striking revaluation.
In the presence of ever more accurate and pervasive face recognition technologies, your face now not only stands for you, it (this sign) is poised to become a smart object in the Internet of Things. Once a collection of uniquely personal features, face now is an expanding repository of trans-personal information and a portal to whole industries destined to use that information.
Today, thanks to the invisibility of big data accompanying it like the 1930s radio drama character The Shadow (who “had the power to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him”), face’s new power is hidden in the way we take its ownership for granted. This makes face a lucrative corporate target.
I BLINK, THEREFORE I AM
Your face is the de facto launcher of myriad technlogies. As a result you now pass valuable information literally in the blink of an eye.
This interactive billboard at a London bus stop can scan your face and determine if you’re a man or a woman by using facial recognition technology. The display then plays one of two messages based on that information. The set-up cost nearly $47,000 and boasts a 90 percent accuracy ratein determining whether passersby are male or female. Plan UK, a global children’s charity, is using the billboard to raise awareness about the choices unavailable to women around the world in their “Because I’m a girl” campaign. (Men aren’t able to see the full ad, and are directed to the organization’s website instead, to show men “a glimpse of what it’s like to have basic choices taken away.” Women, on the other hand, will see a full 40-second video promoting Plan UK’s cause.)
Face recognition technology is rapidly evolving as evidenced by a new surveillance camera system that can not only recognize specific faces, but is able to compare a single face to 36 million others in just one second.
The system, made by Hitachi Kokusai Electric, is able to achieve its blazing speed by not wasting time on image processing—it takes visual data directly from the camera to compare the face in real time. The software also groups faces with similar features, so it narrows down the field very quickly. When the system finds candidates who could be a match to the person being scanned, it immediately displays their thumbnails. The user can then review the archived footage and see if the person is, say, a repeat customer when it’s being used in a business.
CIA Director David Petraeus finds the confluence of these Internet of Things technologies to be “transformational, particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.” In a recent Wired article he elaborated on how these spy-craft technologies will find their way into the most intimate corners of our homes and lives:
“Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing, the latter now going to cloud computing, in many areas greater and greater supercomputing, and, ultimately, heading to quantum computing.”
Petraeus added that these household spy devices “change our notions of secrecy” and prompt a rethink of “our notions of identity and secrecy.”
IDENTITY AS CURRENCY
Realizing that your face is now a portal, a gateway to the rest of you and your behaviors, a key turns in the lock. No longer are you just a name, address and social security number. You are now a mob of miscellany. You have become the rising sum of your separated parts. From your cell phone data to your body odor, ear shape, or iris scan, you are going the way of your tools: data, and the tools that track data, deconstruct and atomize. Facial profiling reveals a central fact in the identity business: the money is in the multiplicity. Data is digitized, made miscellaneous, and is ready for sale to a widening swath of eager bidders who are buying at auction, not knowing exactly what they are getting but are willing to bet that something is there in the data that they can put to use. From your keystrokes to your Google and Facebook profiles, you are your deconstruction.
It hardly matters that you are easily sold off for your constituent parts, for your moves and the data those moves leave behind, or that this sale happens in your absence without your consent and mostly without your knowledge. Your face goes with you; it never crossed your mind that you might leave it behind. This odd, even unthinkable, state blinds us to what is happening right in front of our noses.
However, as you are auctioned for your bits and bytes it dawns that you are part of a vast new recalculation: access and convenience for privacy, data for identity. Formerly the banknotes and coins of a government constituted a currency; face is now traded as a commodity and is as valuable as Dinars or Pounds. You are (your face is) a storehouse of markers, characteristics and—especially—emotional indicators. Not only are you for sale, identity is the new currency of the realm. However you may think of yourself in personal, professional or familial terms, you are becoming a generally accepted medium of exchange.
LIFE UNDER DECONSTRUCTION
The one-ness of you is gone. You are now a crowd of measurable emotions. Picasso saw it coming. The deconstruction he drew is now upon us. Our eyebrows are over our mouths, our faces are no longer merely symmetrical, they are subdivided into their components. These emotional elements—face recognition software can apply modeling conventions to generate a ‘spider’ map which maps 143 inter-related points directly to the motion of facial muscles as picked up by a camera—are the raw fuel of trackers who may soon decide the meaning of data movements throughout the world. Those movements are bigger than our imaginations can fathom. According to a recent report by Cisco, global Internet traffic will quadruple from 2010 to 2015, reaching 966 exabytes per year. (According to Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, all human knowledge from the dawn of man to 2003 totaled 5 exabytes.) You, and especially your face, are now in that traffic flow that is expanding to include every data capture associated with you from grocery store receipts, to bank statements or computer toll records. The NSA, among others, is building a vast data-capture network to examine “every email, phone call and tweet as they zip by.”
Hiding your face is no longer an option.
FaceTime is not only an Apple iPhone feature that “lets you be in two places at once.” It is an acknowledgement that thanks to nearly universal digitization there are more of you than there were before. We are all doing face time now. The capture, download, digitizing and dissemination of our faces is the tactical progression of our new identities. Rumi wrote in his love poem “Looking for Your Face”:
From the beginning of my life
I have been looking for your face
but today I have seen it
Now, at long last, we can see our faces for what they are—pure information.
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