Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance

Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance

Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance

Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance

Synopsis

Since the 1960s, a significant effort has been underway to program computers to "see" the human face--to develop automated systems for identifying faces and distinguishing them from one another- commonly known as Facial Recognition Technology. While computer scientists are developing FRT in order to design more intelligent and interactive machines, businesses and states agencies view the technology as uniquely suited for "smart" surveillance--systems that automate the labor of monitoring in order to increase their efficacy and spread their reach.

Tracking this technological pursuit, Our Biometric Future identifies FRT as a prime example of the failed technocratic approach to governance, where new technologies are pursued as shortsighted solutions to complex social problems. Culling news stories, press releases, policy statements, PR kits and other materials, Kelly Gates provides evidence that, instead of providing more security for more people, the pursuit of FRT is being driven by the priorities of corporations, law enforcement and state security agencies, all convinced of the technology's necessity and unhindered by its complicated and potentially destructive social consequences. By focusing on the politics of developing and deploying these technologies, Our Biometric Future argues not for the inevitability of a particular technological future, but for its profound contingency and contestability.

Excerpt

Of all the dramatic images to emerge in the hours and days fol
lowing the September 11 attacks, one of the most haunting was
a frame from a surveillance-camera video capturing the face of
suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta as he passed through an air
port metal detector in Portland, me. Even more chilling to many
security experts is the fact that, had the right technology been
in place, an image like that might have helped avert the attacks.
According to experts, face recognition technology that’s already
commercially available could have instantly checked the image
against photos of suspected terrorists on file with the fbi and
other authorities. If a match had been made, the system could
have sounded the alarm before the suspect boarded his flight.

—Alexandra Stikeman, “Recognizing the Enemy,” Technology
Review
, December 2001

The September 11 terrorist attacks generated an enormous flood of imagery, and among the deluge was a grainy shot of two of the alleged attackers taken early that morning at a security checkpoint in the Portland, Maine, airport. the recorded video image, which appears to show Mohammad Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari passing through airport security, is a familiar part of 9/11 iconography. Although difficult to discern the men’s faces in the image, it is virtually impossible to reference it without also invoking the claim that facial recognition technology could have identified the men as wanted terrorist suspects. Already existing commercially available systems, according to this regretful yet strangely hopeful assertion, “could have instantly checked the image against photos of suspected terrorists” and alerted airport security.

The suggestion that an automated facial recognition system may have helped avert the September 11 terrorist attacks was perhaps the most ambi-

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