“Scary” or “Effective” - amazing how perspective matters

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07/13/2010

Recently, CNN ran a feature on facial recognition technology. Some of my security journalist colleagues reposted it, as in, “look how informative.”

But, come on. This story is exactly why people complain about bias in the media.

I write for a security industry publication. Of course I’m biased from a security industry point of view. But CNN? Aren’t they supposed to be a little skeptical?

Just look at the headline: “Why face recognition isn’t scary — yet.” Then it goes on to outline why it doesn’t really work very well (a conclusion I basically came to in my special report on facial recognition this spring).

However, instead of at least considering whether this technology could be effective in keeping people and property safe, the headline writer, at least, and the author, too, jumps to the conclusion that, of course, this technology is going to eventually be used for evil purposes.

That may be comforting news for people worried about governments using facial recognition systems to surveil the public — in effect, ending anonymity.

Who has ever intimated that the government wants to end anonymity? And how would that work, exactly? The government would have a giant database of every face of every citizen in the country? Even at its most-invasive security use as proposed by security types, the cameras are just going to be looking for known criminals.

The inherent assumption in that assurance to their readers by CNN is so fundamentally ridiculous it shouldn’t even be considered. And yet, it’s the basis for their entire story.

I also have a problem with this quote: “”I don’t think, currently, any facial recognition system is good enough for security purposes — not even close, actually,” said Yi Ma, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, and a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research in China.”

So I guess the people in this story I wrote last month are just liars?

And, yet again, a news organization queries some academic who doesn’t even work in the security field when it’s wondering about security technology. How about asking someone who installs and works with the technology every friggin’ day? Would that be too difficult?

Finally, we have the privacy guys, who set up straw men left and right to make points and arguments against invisible and non-existent evil government bad guys. This section is so laughable I can’t believe that any journalist would write it:

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the motives behind the technology are what worry him.

Governments and corporations intend to use facial recognition software to track the public and to eliminate privacy, he said, noting that automatically identifying people in public in the U.S., when they are not suspected of a crime, could be a violation of constitutional rights.

When facial recognition comes to surveillance cameras, which are already in place, “you’re no longer racing through iPhoto to figure out how many pictures of Barbara you have,” Rotenberg said. “You’re walking around in public and facing cameras that know who you are. And I think that’s a little creepy.”

Seriously, look at that: “Governments and corporations intend to use facial recognition software to track the public and to eliminate privacy.” What!?! What government has ever said they want to do that? What corporation? That is a completely unfounded belief on his part, but CNN accepts that as fact.

Of course governments want to track the general public and eliminate privacy!

Why on earth would anyone believe that the government wants to track the movements of random members of the public?

Oh, look there! Sally is going to the grocery store again! That’s the third time this week!

The government barely has enough staff to make sure the toilets are clean in the Pentagon. Does anyone really believe there are the resources and manpower to track the movements of every person in the United States?

I’m glad this joker noted that “automatically identifying people in public in the U.S., when they are not suspected of a crime, could be a violation of constitutional rights.” Who cares if it is or it isn’t? No one is actually trying to do that!

Let me now note for the record that checking to see if small children can fly by throwing them off the top of the Empire State Building could very well be a violation of their constitutional rights!

The security industry needs to speak up about these issues and take back this conversation about privacy. As long as privacy nuts, who live in false realities constructed in their paranoid imaginations, are allowed to dictate the conversation, the security industry will be on the defensive and the general public will be ignorant of the technology’s intended uses.

Someone tell the mainstream press a great story about saving a life or saving property by using this technology. And do it fast.

That headline should have read, “Why face recognition isn’t EFFECTIVE — yet.”

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Comments

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<p class="comment_author"><span style="font-size: x-small;"><span style="color: rgb(153, 153, 153);">July 15th, 2010 at 9:29 am </span></span></p>
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<p>&mdash; yet.&rdquo;<br />
Don&rsquo;t you think that prognosis is a bit hopeful? How will the passage of time effect beards, scarves, purposeful altering of features, etc? Accurate crowd-sourced facial recognition? The calculations required are stupifyingly exponential.</p>
<p>If the &mdash; yet.&rdquo; was based on the fact that this technology requires processing speeds beyond current capabilities to be effective (which is true) then it would be accurate. This technology surely has some limited applications where it can be of value&hellip;.but most analytics drones purport them to be the answer to everything.</p>
<p>Business models seem to be built around being the first player to offer features and achieving a high name recognition by pumping out &lsquo;what can be, now&rsquo; PR stories&hellip;.whether the product is field-ready or not.</p>
<p>It seems to me that normal biz practices get tossed when VC folks all want their funded entities to be &lsquo;first&rsquo; (so THEY can hopefully recoup some of the craploads of $$ they&rsquo;ve sunk into a venture they&rsquo;ve now re-evaluated as being riskier than they&rsquo;d surmised going in).</p>
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<p class="comment_author"><span style="font-size: x-small;"><span style="color: rgb(153, 153, 153);">July 14th, 2010 at 7:40 am </span></span></p>
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<p>Hey John,<br />
There is an element of bombast and exaggeration to my writing that has often not sat well with you. When you suspect I&rsquo;m being over the top for effect, you&rsquo;re very likely correct in that suspicion. I&rsquo;m quite confident that the toilets in the Pentagon virtually sparkle with the radiance of a thousand suns (oops, I&rsquo;m doing it again!).<br />
<br />
But we are in agreement here. When I say &ldquo;The security industry needs to speak up about these issues and take back this conversation about privacy&rdquo; and &ldquo;Someone tell the mainstream press a great story about saving a life or saving property by using this technology&rdquo; I&rsquo;m advocating that someone more responsible than myself enter and elevate this discourse.<br />
CNN has hundreds of millions of readers. I have thousands of security guys who read my blog for a little information and maybe a laugh or two. If they&rsquo;re going let claims that the government is planning to &ldquo;eliminate privacy&rdquo; just slide on by without a question, I&rsquo;m not going to worry about a little hyperbole coming back on my part.</p>
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<p class="comment_author"><span style="font-size: x-small;"><span style="color: rgb(153, 153, 153);">July 13th, 2010 at 12:21 pm </span></span></p>
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<p>Sam, your mocking and ad homeniem attacks against privacy critics is a dangerous approach for the security industry to take. This type of response (calling them nuts, paranoid, comparing them to people who fear children being thrown off skyscrapers) sends the message that we have no respect for their concerns.</p>
<p>Furthermore, I believe you unfairly underestimate concerns about the misuse of security technology in general.</p>
<p>1 - You object to their concern because no government nor corporation &ldquo;has ever said they want to&rdquo; eliminate privacy. Do you really expect such people to admit this publicly? Is it fair to throw such concerns out simply because the people who might do this are smart enough not to say this publicly?</p>
<p>2 - You mock the thought of tracking random persons like Sally going to the grocery store. However, what if Sally just filed for divorce against her husband (who is a police officer or government official)? What if Sally decides to run for political office? While most movements might be ignored, there are many ways where people might be genuinely concerned about their actions being tracked (this is not just about face rec but also credit cards, phone calls, website usage, etc.).</p>
<p>3 - You claim the government is atrociously incompetent: &ldquo;The government barely has enough staff to make sure the toilets are clean in the Pentagon&rdquo; and that they lack the resources and manpower to do this. The first claim is so over the top, I suspect you meant it merely for dramatic effect. The second part (about the lack of resources) ignores what critics are most concerned about - as technology becomes more powerful, it&rsquo;s much easier for powerful entities to conduct such monitoring (whether it is for faces, phone calls, websites, etc.).</p>
<p>I do agree that critics often over-estimate the effectiveness of security technology. I believe we can improve the discourse by explaining these technology limitations. However, I think it is essential that we respect their contributions, engaging in discourse rather than disparagement.</p>
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