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Freedom, in a Technical Age

(Note added July 10, 2010: I wrote the post below on Independence Day in the United States, for a reason.)

Apple’s iPhoto does it.

Google’s Picasa does it.

Now Facebook will do it, too! (Note added December 21, 2010: Yep, here is a link to an article about it.)

(Of course, the other, MAJOR thing that Facebook does, is to construct a graph of your family, friends, business colleagues, acquaintances, and MUCH more! The link is to the Graph API [Application Programming Interface] Overview documentation.) (Note added August 11, 2010: HP researchers have also constructed a graph using 22 million Twitter tweets to determine what makes someone [a node on the graph] influential on Twitter, and have published a scientific paper on the subject.* HP Labs also “imagines your computer watching you.:-( )

What is it?

Facial recognition… the coolest “enhancement” you likely NEVER requested. Who did? And why? Very good questions, indeed…. :-)

The CNN article by Ben Parr of Mashable calls it “face detection technology,” but it’s not. Face detection technology helps some cameras focus on things that are likely to be faces (as opposed to, for example, TREES :-) ). Facial recognition software, once you “tag” a face as “Bill,” goes through your thousands of photos :-) and identifies which ones are likely to be Bill. (Note added July 10, 2010: Sometimes it “gets stuck” and asks you, “Is this Bill?” and you let it know, because you are so helpful! :-) ) Sometimes, like one Picasa update, it starts to categorize photos WITHOUT ASKING YOU. (That’s when I shut it off.)

Is this a good thing?

While you think about that, consider another article, by a gentleman named Clark Howard, in his blog “Clark’s Consumer Tips”. Clark called the July 2, 2010 entry, “Privacy at work? Don’t bet on it.” Clark refers to a Supreme Court case that was decided unanimously, 9-0, about privacy at work. Clark says, “And if you believe you have any right to privacy with your employer, you’re crazy.” :-)

I agree with everything that Clark says in that article, except that I believe he is being too optimistic concerning his privacy with regard to communications on his own phone and own computer. I have worked in at least one (probably, at least two) place(s) where my movement around buildings was tracked by the RFID tag in my employee ID. At another company, I listened to the company’s telephony people discuss cell phone records with management, and the fact that microphones were concealed in the suspended ceilings “burned” one of them, personally. (Note added July 10, 2010: Yes, the “phone guys” verified that the mics were there. My experience is that people and places that specialize in “security” seem [or ARE] more “paranoid” than the rest. Perhaps it is because they are more aware of the technology that exists, than the rest. And face it, some of the people were just BORN that way, and the places became gathering spots for them! :-) No doubt, software that allows people to monitor everything on your computer screen was also in place. There are MANY companies [e.g. 1, 2] that compete for software business in this space.) Of course, there were cameras as well.

When you see company vice-presidents talking with other managers outdoors, over 100 yards from the building, for privacy, you can believe that extraordinary surveillance is in place. :-) Does such surveillance make people cautious? You bet! Does it solicit the best work from employees? Doubtful….

Clark says:

“If you are doing anything in your personal life that might seem fine to you, but might seem not fine to your employer, never, ever, ever post it on Facebook. Do not Tweet about it. I realize I’m saying you have to be a robot at work. Yes, you do – because your employer is the one that issues the paychecks. It’s that simple.”

Now, will Facebook (itself) help out your employer with things they want to know? I don’t know. Will Facebook help out your government with things they want to know? My guess is, “Almost certainly…!” Will your government help out your employer with things they want to know? It probably depends for whom you work! :-) Some places where I worked partner(ed) closely with government.

In March of this year, I wrote about the development of facial recognition software and how the software, years ago, surpassed the ability of humans to recognize faces, even with such disguises as beards, mustaches, glasses, and sunglasses. Building data bases of faces and names has always been desired. Identity is a very important concept. Ah, but how to identify all of those millions and millions (billions?) of faces…? And how to do it inexpensively…? Let’s divide up the labor among “volunteers”… and let’s make it FUN! :-) (Note added July 10, 2010: Not only that, but we COULD use distributed computing to handle the load, just like the very early project, SETI@home.)

At this point, you might also ask yourself why almost every cell phone made today has a camera (or two!) incorporated in it (Note added July 10, 2010: Every recent cell phone, and many cameras, in the U.S. also have GPS.), even though many companies complained early on that such cameras were (and still ARE) a security threat…. (Note added July 10, 2010: For example, that is why, when you watch a Pixar movie that has not yet been released, at Pixar’s theater on site in Emeryville, CA, they COLLECT any cell phones that you have not left in your car, BEFORE you enter the theater. I do not blame them. Piracy costs millions (billions?) of dollars each year.)

If I wanted to have millions and millions of networked cameras all over the place, cheaply, I would have YOU buy them and take photos of everyone you know. (Note added July 10, 2010: EVERYWHERE! In homes, at parties, in bedrooms, sexting, in bathrooms, EVERYWHERE…. Places that generally are not allowed to be viewed through public [or private] security cameras…. Hey, but YOU chose to take those private photos!) (Note added August 14, 2010: … and YOU chose to waive your Fourth Amendment Rights by sharing that information with a third party, your telecommunications company, up in the “cloud.”) Fortunately, (for ME!) I am not that interested in your personal lives; however, there are folk who ARE, who worked with telecommunications companies to set up an interface at Folsom Street in San Francisco (and who knows where else) to transmit phone calls, emails, and internet traffic (and I’ll have to assume photos, text messages, videos, etc.). Oh, the storage is cheap, too! You paid for it.

(Note added August 17, 2010: I realized today that some of you might not know that the microphone in your cell phone can be activated remotely, as a “roving bug” to listen in on your, or nearby, conversations. When the FBI used this technique against New York crime “families,” back in 2006 or before, two judges approved it. I am not sure that it would require judicial approval now, given anti-terrorist legislation. I also have not read whether the CAMERA in cell phones can be remotely activated or not, but HEY! Why not!)

Also in that March blog entry, I wrote about the latest electronic billboards for ads in Japan that incorporate a camera and WATCH YOU as you watch the billboard. The latest software can guess your age correctly, almost every time, and based on your demographics, can “serve up” the optimal ad that may interest you. Who knows what else the camera reports back about you, for inclusion in the data base.

The recent article about Facebook recognizing faces has a cartoon blank face in “Groucho glasses.” This is particularly funny to me because a “friend of a friend” in high tech wrote, in Facebook, about using Groucho glasses to thwart facial recognition systems. Sorry. Mere Groucho glasses are woefully inadequate, though entertaining! :-)

Yes, I use Facebook. No, I will not tag photos of friends and family, BUT it does not matter, because SOME of my connections will! Perhaps that is why every cell phone contains a camera, and why you do not need to take an intelligence test to buy a camera or a cell phone! :-) (Oh, your digital camera is not NETWORKED? No problem. The computer to which you load the photos likely is.) The data base of faces and identities, and the graph of connections, will be built one way or another, with the work distributed. I do not post anything on Facebook that I do not want everyone in the world to know (hey, but some of my “friends” might)! Suppose you have Facebook’s “security” in place…. Do ALL (I mean ALL!) of your friends? (I am assuming, just for a moment, :-) that Facebook’s security is “secure.”)

So, what are the prospects for freedom, in a society so focused on security? Freedom and security are opposing processes. (One company where I worked HAD :-) a strong business in security. The company handed out T-shirts one day that said, “Security Sets You FREE!” Yeah. Right. I kept the T-shirt, because it is ludicrous. :-) ) Suppose that you are very cautious about your posts. If even one erroneous post by a friend could get you fired (or WORSE :-) [“arrrrrgh, them that DIES will be the LUCKY ones!” :-) ] – you may continue to be employed but never told that you have no hope of advancement), then what are the prospects for freedom?

I have no answer.

I only hope that the lyrics by one Rhodes Scholar are not completely true:

Freedom’s just another word, for nothing left to lose.” (YouTube video) – Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee

(Note added July 9, 2010: An article by John D. Sutter of CNN (a fine writer, part of his resume is HERE) today is entitled, “Why Face Recognition isn’t scary — yet” I will be kind and call the article “naive.” I would not want to suggest that the article was published to put minds to rest that it’s OK to tag photos, because the technology is not “there” yet! I certainly would not want to say that the author could be a “shill” for folks who want to enlist your aid to make sure that the tagging of photos goes forward, because I really do not believe that is true. The article cites an academic researcher.

There are two problems that I see. The first seems to be “revisionist history.” The second seems to be that academic researchers might no longer be the folks most aware of the “state of the art,” which is likely classified. As for revisionist history, either Tampa police identified, with facial recognition software, 19 people with pending arrest warrants out of a crowd of 72,000 attending Super Bowl XXXV WAY BACK IN 2001, or they did not! Everything that I have been able to find online (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4) indicates that the police DID! I don’t think that ANYONE would argue that software, photography, or electronics has moved backward since 2001. Facial recognition was used to help prevent voter fraud EARLIER, in the Mexican presidential election of 2000. Doggone it! Technology does not move BACKWARD. So let’s not pretend that it does.

I worked in a place that scanned my palm every day to open doors to get to my cubicle, and scanned the irises of folks’ eyes to get to more secure areas. To suggest that facial recognition in crowds is not possible YET, in 2010, when it worked in 2001, is anti-historical. Facial recognition was scary a LONG time ago. The fact that it is pervading software by Apple, Google, and soon Facebook, is even scarier. I did not request it. Did you?

Facebook also seems to be having some problems with its privacy policies in countries that, frankly, seem to CARE MORE about individual privacy that the U.S. does!)

(Note added August 6, 2010: According to CNET, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made some interesting comments two days ago at the Techonomy conference at Lake Tahoe:

TRUCKEE, Calif.–For those concerned with privacy, Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave them a few more things to start worrying about.

At a conference here Wednesday, Schmidt noted that using artificial intelligence, computers can take 14 pictures of anyone on the Internet and stand a good chance of identifying that person. Similarly, the data collected by location-based services can be used not only to show where someone is at, but to also predict with a lot of accuracy where they might be headed next.

“Pretty interesting,” Schmidt said. “Good idea, Bad idea?…The technology of course is neutral but society is not fundamentally ready.”

I agree with Schmidt. As with the invention of the wheel, the harnessing of fire and electricity, and the invention of practical radios, technology often advances first and leaves society “running to catch up.” Schmidt’s advice, “I think it’s time for people to get ready for it.”

I think that I understand what Schmidt meant by a couple comments below, which are still a bit disturbing to me:

On balance, Schmidt said that technology is good, but he said that the only way to manage the challenges is “much greater transparency and no anonymity.”

Schmidt said that in an era of asymmetric threats, “true anonymity is too dangerous.”

We clearly do not need people launching wars in response to forged identities, but “no anonymity” is ALSO dangerous and assumes that the entities [governments? corporations?] that ALWAYS KNOW your identity are “benevolent.” I think THAT is a pretty big assumption.)

* From the HP research paper cited above:

“Twitter provides a Search API for extracting tweets containing particular keywords. To obtain the dataset for this study, we continuously queried the Twitter Search API for a period of 300 hours starting on 10 Sep 2009 for all tweets containing the string http. This allowed us to acquire a continuous stream of 22 million tweets with URLs, which we estimated to be 1/15th of the entire Twitter activity at that time. From each of the accumulated tweets, we extracted the URL mentions. Each of the unique 15 million URLs in the data set was then checked for valid formatting and the URLs shortened via the services such as bit.ly or tinyurl.com were expanded into their original form by following the HTTP redirects. For each encountered unique user ID, we queried the Twitter API for metadata about that user and in particular the user’s followers and followees. The end result was a dataset of timestamped URL mentions together with the complete social graph for the users concerned.”

-Bill at

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