You’re at a cocktail party, invited by a friend you just met. A chap comes from across the room wearing the latest Google Glasses and introduces himself after having looked up everything about you on the internet on his way over. Politicians, business leaders and celebrities go through this on a regular basis, but some of us enjoy relative anonymity, whether by avoiding social media (or making your profile private), moving to a new place, or attending an event of strangers. The key question is: do we have a right to be a stranger in public, and if so, how should we protect that right?
Few people remain absent from every photo database, be it a yearbook or Facebook. And yet, when photos are taken, most of us don't expect that they will end up as a part of a database used to identify us at a cocktail party, or walking down the street. That expectation is changing, as a much larger amount of photos are being stored and shared on internet databases. Even if these photos are not public, they have the potential to end up in a database somewhere, forever tagged to your name. What could once be buried in boxes of stuff from yesteryear, we can assume are being, or will be, stored and cataloged forever.
Moreover, augmentations will surely provide the means to accomplish cocktail party facial scans. The facial recognition tech, however flawed, exists today. Google Lens exists today. The wearable or implantable version is inevitable. If the database and the tech are both inevitabilities, what stops these strange encounters and the accompanying pervasive social effects? Privacy minded people will point to collection as the first line of defense. How can we conceivably stop the scanning, posting, and mass tagging of our photos? We've already come to accept that as common practice on social media. Once someone somewhere has placed a photograph into a publicly searchable database, we can assume someone somewhere has scraped it and archived it. Therefore, if one clear photo of you has made it on the internet that at some point facial recognition technology has associated with you, the cat is out of the bag.
One approach to prevent public facial scans is penalizing the app provider. The simple solution would be to ban facial recognition apps and databases by placing heavy fines for violations. Facebook today may have the largest repository of photos associated with names outside of government issued identification databases. Allowing an opt-out as some tech companies have pitched, is insufficient. A data scientist equipped with enough uniquely identifying variables could likely reassociate your photo to your name. And, once that association is made, the government would have to stomp out every facial recognition tool and its database with the same vigilance it pursues child pornography. See the problem? An opt-out lets the cat out of the bag.
Alternatively, or in conjunction with a ban on a facial recognition tool, we could ban the end-user from using such tools. The enforcement of this would mean we would have to police peoples phones, glasses, and maybe one day their brains. That does not seem workable. Threatening app providers and database hosts with strict penalties is a more workable solution.
Some people may enjoy being a stranger, while others (social media stars) may want to be found in facial recognition database. Whether we should define a right to public anonymity is up for debate. If the majority of people opted to be searchable, you might one day be avoided in public if you can’t be found because some may think you have some nefarious past to hide, or are as lame as those of us who don’t have Facebook pages in 2019. I’m content if opting out of facial recognition makes me not cool. I’m not cool if the world is like Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”