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Face Recognition Technology (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

There is an amazing technology now available to fight crime. It's a computer program that can recognize faces.

It identifies a face by measuring how its features are combined. It examines, for example, the shape of the triangle made by the eyes and nose, or how high a cheekbone is above a chin. In this way it can match a face photographed by, say, a video survalliance camera to one of millions stored in the computer's memory.

It would seem that to rid us of much crime, all we need to do is to use these computers in all sorts of places. What image could be more comforting than this: Automatic face-recognition computers continuously scan an airport crowd. When it finds a terrorist, it alerts the authorities who swoop down and arrest him.

But before installing this everywhere we need to place this new technology in perspective. It seems new and revolutionary, but it's just one more step down a perilous path we've been taking since World War Two. We feared at the end of the war the world of George Orwell's 1984. But it isn't Orwell's Big Brother Police Force and their in-your-face technology that menaces us. We don't often worry about a brutal police force that operates as it pleases, since World War Two we've moved step-by-step toward a system were a police state need no longer be brutal, or openly inquisitorial, or even omnipresent in public consciousness. Police have instead moved in the direction of anticipating and forestalling crime. So, the trend is toward tracking every citizen thoughout his or her life - geographically, commercially, and biologically.

This began soon after World War Two with records of fingers prints, extensive paper dossiers on citizens, and then computer punch cards to sort through files. It evolved into the electronic databases and biological profiling we have today. These new face recognition computer programs are just a way to quietly add a page to an electronic dossier.

Still, the potential for abuse is enormous. In the future, perhaps, when someone approaches a sales desk their credit info would be displayed automatically for the sales staff. Or, with enough cameras, the state could track the public movements of everyone. As a result people would be less likely to do public activities, to engage, for example, in protests that offend powerful interests.

So, face recognition technologies may seem a non-intrusive, painless way to keep order. But as we decide how to use them we must keep in mind the story of police work since World War Two: The most insidious technique is the one which makes itself felt the least, and which represents the least burden, yet lets every citizen be thoroughly known to the state.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises