Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the program discussed as “Vice News Tonight on HBO.” The correct name of the program is “VICE on HBO.”
Last weekend, VICE on HBO aired a segment called “A Face in the Crowd” about how companies and the government are using facial recognition technology in China.
It was like watching a science fiction horror movie.
The segment starts off kind of quirky. Elle Reeve, the Vice correspondent who reported the story, walks across a street in China against the walking signal. A photograph of her face is captured and posted on a public display meant to embarrass jaywalkers.
I love it. Jaywalking should be a felony in my book.
But then, things get a little creepy.
Reeve goes to KFC and the facial recognition machine recognizes her and asks her if she wants the usual, as if she’s a regular customer and the machine is a personable waiter with a sharp memory.
She gets toilet paper from a machine at a public restroom that dispenses a limited amount over a nine-minute period. If she tries to get more, it recognizes her face and tells her to try again later. Good for conservation. Bad if you like to keep your sh-t private.
She visits SenseTime, one of the leading facial recognition tech companies in Beijing, where the front doors remain locked unless the camera recognizes the approaching person’s face. Good for security. Bad for people who show up late to work.
Then things get creepier.
We see what the security cameras see, not the ones that recommend your third fried chicken family meal of the week but the ones that are set up all around Beijing watching for crime. The camera picks up on clothes people are wearing, the color of cars driving by, and it matches faces with citizens’ mandatory, government-issued identification cards.
Reeve visits a government-owned apartment complex where a camera at the front door sees who comes in and out. That data is collected and the manager can see who has the most visitors, when they arrive, when they leave and what they look like. And, it seems, this isn’t the half of what the government cameras actually collect.
I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, this is China we’re talking about. This type of invasion of privacy could never happen in the United States.”
Remember, a few weeks ago, when we found out Facebook was giving away loads of information about its users to Cambridge Analytica, who, in turn, used that data to create psychological profiles on users so they could better target political advertisements?
What if something happened just Like that – almost exactly the same idea Idea – except, instead of tracking what we clicked on, cute little tech companies like Facebook or Google tracked where we went? Not where we went online, but where we went out in the real world, just walking around, shopping, going to work or school or even walking in and out of your front door.
Apple already has face recognition technology on the new iPhones.
Amazon is grooming its customers through Alexa’s voice recognition technology.
Tesla and Uber’s cameras are almost smart enough to drive on their own.
Police cameras on Arizona freeways take photos of speeding cars and send the driver a ticket in the mail.
This complex and widespread sort of facial recognition technology that we see in China will probably emerge in America as a seemingly harmless way to work with your devices, like unlocking your phone or unlocking the door to your house or paying for a meal. It will come from a company you trust, whose products you already use. They will seem to be making the world a better place.
Then that footage of your face will probably be collected for “research” or to make the technology better suited for you. Then they’ll sell it to other companies like Starbucks for targeted advertising and the government for national security.
You’ll get a notification about a deal on Orange Mocha Frappuccinos every time you’re near a Starbucks. The police can know every time you jaywalk. That’s not freedom.
The right to be invisible from powerful institutions is a natural human right. New technology continues to chip away at that right.
Facebook and Google have proven they’re more interested in selling ads than protecting their users’ privacy, so, since we know the companies who will likely develop this sort of technology won’t be on our side, it’s up to us to be ready to draw some serious legal lines in the sand when cameras start popping up, telling us how much toilet paper we can have.
Opinions expressed in The Nevada Sagebrush are solely those of the author and do not necessarily express the views of The Sagebrush or of its staff. Ryan Suppe studies journalism and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @salsuppe.