As hackneyed as it sounds, we stand today at the cusp of a major techno-cultural shift. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the global proliferation of facial-recognition technology over the last few years heralds the nightmarish social order imagined by generations of dystopians—a society in which the digital and increasingly the real-world activities of citizens can be surveilled, analyzed, archived, hacked and bartered. This is the dark vision prophesied in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose protagonist Winston Smith hides in a corner of his own flat, out of the range of Big Brother's ubiquitous telescreens. It represents both the culmination of all prior bio-metric technologies (fingerprints, voice recognition, retinal scans, DNA testing, etc.) and a quantum leap into a future of vastly diminished privacy and possibly vastly diminished rights.
All of it is happening before our eyes, sometimes with the air of inevitability of which Agent Smith (actor Hugo Weaving) spoke so menacingly in the 1999 movie The Matrix. Democratic Germany is in the second year of a facial-recognition pilot project in which CCTV images of individual commuters are processed instantly to determine whether they are wanted by the state. Undemocratic China has reportedly developed the most advanced facial-recognition tech in the world and is now surveilling the real-time movements of millions of its citizens. In many instances, where facial-recognition technology is not imposed, it is adopted voluntarily. According to a recent Washington Post piece, "unproven" U.S. startups now pitch facial-recognition tech to public schools as a means of thwarting mass shootings. We are not surprised by the proliferation of facial-recognition technology under the aegis of the national-security state (border control, counter-terrorism, drone warfare, domestic policing, etc.). Thus it is increasingly difficult to envisage a future in which bricks-and-mortar civilian institutions—schools, hospitals, malls, government offices, courts, concert venues, etc.—will voluntarily forego it.
One question that has only just begun to intrude on our conversations about the brave new world of facial recognition is what form(s) resistance will take. History is not without relevant antecedents here—as survivors of the GDR's Ministry for State Security (better known as the Stasi) continue to attest. Obviously, citizens in liberal democracies will fare better in this surveillance-on-demand world than the citizens of dictatorships, but not without extraordinary vigilance from civil libertarians, lawmakers, and especially the courts. Public life in twenty-first century North America has been characterized by a marked willingness to trade liberty for security, alongside a shocking loss of the habit of privacy, particularly among the young. It is worrisome to know that internet giants like Google can identify us from our online selfies. But it is also heartening to learn that young software engineers like U of T's Joey Bose are working on new apps to jam their algorithms.
In almost every fictional dystopia there is a person or community that endeavors to live entirely beyond the reach of the techno-cultural mainstream—sometimes successfully, but more often quixotically. And so it is with the advent of facial recognition and its myriad enabling technologies. Over the long run it is hard to imagine any strategy via which such powerful surveillance tools might be thwarted or even forestalled. But in the democratic West at least—which is to say, in proper liberal fashion—we can refuse our consent. We can withhold our own complicity. And we can assert our right to be anonymous alongside our right to be forgotten.