My car has a GPS. My smart-phone has a GPS. My tablet has a GPS. Even my dog has a GPS.
For readers who have been asleep for the last 20 or so years and are not familiar with this technology – welcome to the 21st century, I hope you are now fully awake and reading this blog.
GPS provides an easy way to track my movements. From top-secret government establishments to advertisers keen to find out which shops I am visiting, right down to my wife, just checking when I come home sweaty and exhausted if I really was at my health club, my location is there for anyone to see using simple GPS tracking tools.
Of course, I can park my car and walk away. I can turn off my phone, my tablet. But I can’t go ‘dark’. With the latest technology, I have nowhere to hide. Welcome to the world of Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR).
Facial recognition technology can find faces in a crowd. The rapidly developing technology measures the distances between many facial features of a captured image from surveillance CCTV. The resulting data can then be compared with images stored on a database which could include fairly unobjectionable categories such as suspects wanted by the police and missing people. However, it does not take much imagination to see more worrisome databases; lists of political activists, hecklers and known ‘trouble-makers’. As well as recognising you, AFR can read several expressions – anger, fear ….. If you really want to know, the system uses Facial Animation Parameters (FAPs) to classify facial expressions. FAPs describe the movements of the outer-lips and eyebrows.
The technology is still in its infancy and, as happens in these modern times, the law has not yet caught up. Just this week, the High Court in London heard the first legal challenge to police use of facial recognition technology. Ed Bridges said that his face was scanned while he was shopping in 2017 and again at a peaceful anti-arms protest in 2018. His claim that police use of AFR to process an image taken of him in public had caused him “distress” and violated his privacy and data protection rights was dismissed by two leading judges, who said there was nothing unlawful the use of the technology.
The only way to defend ourselves against this “Big Brother” oversight is to cover our faces. But here again the law is unclear and varies from country to country. In some countries it is illegal to cover your face in public. In others, there is no problem.
In the US it is legal to cover your face in public because clothes are protected by free speech.
Some time ago, the Supreme Court ruled that free speech protects even political or offensive clothing. As a result, all clothing is protected by free speech, no matter how controversial. Thus, wearing a face covering is protected. This would allow Moslem women to wear a niqāb, even if the US didn’t have freedom of religion.
In France, however the courts have not given free speech protection to wearing any item of clothing. Because of this, the French government passed an act of parliament banning face coverings back in 2010.
In the UK, it is illegal to cover your face in certain circumstances. Generally, this is only enforced after a riot has been declared, and the police will usually not arrest offenders, only order them to remove their coverings. Luckily, the Black Act that made covering or blacking your face a criminal act, punishable by death, was repealed in 1823.
And, in another blow to our privacy, Ayalon Highways is looking to install a Vehicle Occupancy Detection System. Even if your passengers are wearing masks, they will be counted and the information stored for Big Brother’s use. Car overloaded? Automatic fine. Strayed into bus lane? Automatic fine.
Perhaps there is room for a new Israeli start-up. Just as there are voice changers to disguise yourself when using a telephone, we now need a face changer to disguise ourselves when strolling in the street.