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Now Boarding Flight 1984: Recognition in the Modern Age


Paranoia. The mid-20th century was rife with it. Everyone was afraid. They were afraid of the implications of emerging technology. Authors such as George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick all but predicted the rise of constant surveillance. Today, we read their books under the watchful eye of near-omniscient cameras without even giving the voyeurism a second thought. Cameras today are so fine-tuned that they are able to rapidly recognize faces. While almost all literary evidence argues against them, many companies now use these advanced technologies to further streamline the customer experience. They want technology to get out of the way, to fully weave their tech into the fabric of society. What are the potential uses of these innovations? What are the security and privacy implications inherent when talking about these technological advances?

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Who is Using This Facial Technology?

Biometric recognition systems have been around for years. You can probably list hundreds of instances where you’ve seen fingerprint or iris scanners or voice recognition software. Securing access with biometrics has fundamentally changed the way technology has developed over the last decade.

Now, facial recognition technology has further streamlined the experience. Whereas other security measures rely on one specific characteristic, facial recognition technologies use multiple features to verify a person’s identity. These systems, while clunky and inaccurate at first, now function as a universal standard for forward-thinking companies.

You’d be hardpressed to find a modern company not using facial recognition technology. Microsoft implemented a version, albeit a flawed one,  of the software for the Xbox 360’s Kinect peripheral. Facebook can use photos you’re tagged in to predict where else you appear on their website. Apple’s new iPhone X uses its Face ID technology to unlock your phone, make purchases, and even turn down the volume on your ringer when you get a call. Tech titans see facial recognition technology as the wave of the future, a way to ensure data privacy and security while increasing the convenience of using a device or feature.

Local facial recognition probably doesn’t put you on edge. However, many people have expressed security and privacy concerns over JetBlue’s recent use of the technology. Passengers on certain flights can now skip the boarding pass system entirely. Instead, the airline’s customers simply walk up to the gate and have their faces scanned. Computers relay that information to U.S. Customs where biometric software compares it against a database of immigration images, passports, and visas. Once the computer finds a match, the passengers are free to board the plane and be on their way.

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Why Use This Technology?

Mark Weiser, chief technologist at Xerox PARC, referred to these systems as “ubiquitous computing.” Using these systems, innovators and engineers could usher in an era of supposed “calm technology,” technology so discreet that human beings don’t even notice it anymore.

JetBlue, as well as other highly influential corporations, operate on the philosophy that all interactions with technology should be as streamlined and organic as possible. For them, technology needs to get out of the way. It should require as little input from users as possible.

You can see evidence of this push in virtually all recent technological developments that have taken off. Schedule your Roomba to vacuum the house while you’re out. Ask Alexa to give you the perfect recipe for vegan brownies. Have Siri walk you through the best route to the airport during rush hour. These devices require shockingly little input considering the complex functions they carry out. People bring these devices into their homes because they don’t need a lot of interaction to work effectively.

In the case of JetBlue, proponents say that using similar technology in major airports can serve as an organic way to combat terrorism. Facial recognition allows for more proactive security personnel. If a passenger has to have a scan to board, there is a lower risk of devastating attacks on innocent civilians. Though not quite used for that purpose yet, it is entirely possible that other airlines can use these procedures as additional safety precautions.

The Death of Privacy

Despite the benefits, many people have expressed concerns. For them, security features such as fingerprint and facial scanning have become dangerously pervasive in recent years. In such uncertain times as these, people expect a certain degree of surveillance when out in public. Yet, these new technologies have the potential to monitor your activity no matter where you are. This is due in large part to the “always-on” status of certain features.

Consider Apple’s new iPhone X. Unlocking your phone and making purchases requires that facial recognition technology is always on. What does this mean for your security? It means that your smartphone now has the potential to constantly monitor visual inputs. Even if your phone is just sitting screen-up on a table, it can gather data from your surroundings.

Several experts have cited concerns about the visual nature of our culture as a security risk. Adversarial forces have no problem snapping a photo of a victim in public for use later. What’s more, it is easy to find a high resolution photo of almost anyone on the internet these days. You need only peruse someone’s social media accounts for a few minutes to get enough details for a potential attack. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 suffered a blow when a video surfaced proving that you can dupe its built-in facial recognition technology with a simple selfie. (It is worth noting that the breached phone had not yet seen a wide release and thus could have undergone significant upgrades. Also of note is that, in addition to facial recognition, the Galaxy S8 features both iris and fingerprint scanning.)

Going forward, citizens, users, and tech engineers need to think hard about the nature of privacy. If the digital age has proven anything it’s that, no matter what security measures are in place, your privacy is never completely safe.

How do you feel about the rise of facial recognition technology? Do you believe that biometric technologies can help make the world a safer place? Are features such as face and fingerprint scanning making your data more secure? What do these technologies mean for the future of privacy? No matter how you feel about these issues, share your thoughts with us.


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