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Concerns about the dangers of face recognition cameras

from Declan McCullagh

Patrick [Gunkel, a neuroscientist at MIT, below] is an interesting fellow. You can see some of his work at As for automated face recognition, this is the most important privacy issue confronting us today (yes, more so than what happens when you give your email address to and it goes bankrupt, sigh). --Declan


2001 July 5.


No matter how hard or even disturbing it may be for us to do so, it is important for all of us to try to visualize in advance — from a broad, imaginative, and philosophical perspective — what such Pandoran technology and socio-political innovations as this may be and mean, so that we can keep them from happening in an insidious way, through inattention or naiveté, for simple reasons of efficiency or in response to the narrow interests of certain parties, or because of the pernicious fallacy that everything that becomes practical should also be welcomed by society.

After rotating all aspects of this issue in my mind, in a neutral, fair, and technically knowledgeable way, my own thoughtful conclusion is that the employment of facial recognition technology in our society in the future for most, though not all, police purposes, would be imprudent and should be opposed, simply owing to the extreme risk-to-benefits ratio associated with it, the myriad dangers it would pose for the country over the long term, and the grave injury it would do to basic American ideals, and to a subtle but crucial form of privacy.

It is not a possibility, it is an inevitability, that once this sort of technology is implemented it will be used in ever widening ways until the limits of its applicability have been reached. The second thing to be kept in mind is the reality that the forms of technology that can and will be created in the future for identification, surveillance, and control of populations will be fantastically diverse and sophisticated.

The third thing to keep in mind, or to ponder now, is that the variety of ways in which such technology can be abused, and will be abused if the opportunities are not denied to governments and other organizations, later or preferably now by preclusion, are also extraordinarily diverse, and that it is the SUM of these, and their consequences for the proper relation of the State to the Citizens who are its sole reason for existing, that is the one thing that must be considered in advance, because it is the greater danger or the real threat to human freedom and our way of life.

In effect, you and I hold the future in trust. It is in our power to protect it or to give it away through a lack of imagination, care, and responsibility.


To place this issue in perspective, the face recognition technology for use by police for general identification and surveillance of citizens that is under discussion was created in England. I was watching a news story about it a few days ago on the BBC. What astonished me, as an MIT neuroscientist with a particular interest in visual pattern recognition, was the supposed capacity of this system in the English case. It was said to be able to recognize 50 MILLION FACES PER SECOND. What immediately flashed through my mind was that this is roughly the total population of England. What is therefore ultimately implicit in this heinous technology is the ability of a government to monitor the identity and whereabouts of EVERY SINGLE CITIZEN OF A COUNTRY FROM SECOND TO SECOND.

It is said that in London, where of course a constant threat from the Irish Republican Army exists, there are already of the order of 500 video cameras for the identification of people per square kilometer (an interesting figure to scale-up for the total area of the vast metropolis of Greater London). But what one sees here, in a far more general way, is the danger to all of us from what now is a common disease, notably in government and public policy. I am referring to MONOMANIA, in the sense of the forgetful and destructive obsession of some institution, social group, or individual with a single concern to the exclusion of all others and typically with a blind disregard for the harm that can easily result from such pathological single-mindedness, a condition in which it may seem that all the universe is reducible to one narrow matter, and that the lives of all of us depend upon it. I suggest that such political and social monomania, with its egregious philosophical imbalances, is the real Devil that all of us need to be wary of, and constantly on the watch for and determinedly opposed to, if we are to keep this world sensible and sane.

— Patrick Gunkel, a neuroscientist at MIT

POLITECH -- Declan McCullagh's politics and technology mailing list You may redistribute this message freely if you include this notice. To subscribe, visit This message is archived at

This is ominous. The next tyrannical step, of course, would be to attach a weapon. If they can point a camera, then they can also point an image-activated weapon ... and fire it at their suspects, political enemies, etc. Fortunately, the people of Virginia Beach - and the politicians - oppose to this proposal: <<< TAKE THE POLL

Applied to the War Against Your Gun Rights -- In some areas of America, there are bans on various types and styles of guns. Handguns are banned in D.C. and New York City, for example. Numerous gun bans are being enforced in California. Et cetera.

Now envision the future application of the "50,000,000 faces read in one second" technology when it's deployed on every street corner, in every gun store -- at the shooting range.  Now imagine how such a system could be abused.  For example, if your face is printed when you buy a gun, at such time as that gun hits a "you can't own this anymore" list, you get a call, or a knock -- or a battering ram.

Far fetched? So was television. Radio and telephones, too.

So was the notion that a new machinegun, once ordered by mail, could ever be banned altogether other than for government agents.

We oppose the implementation of face recognition technologies for use in any type of public setting; anywhere where a citizen's face can be scanned without their knowledge is an invasion of privacy. We similarly oppose the use of face recognition technology for use in an ID system -- for things such as banking, proof of identification when making a purchase, or any other such application. As is being seen with retina scans and fingerprinting at some banking locations, gullible people are freely giving their private "body ID's" to their government. The marketing and propaganda, the ease of use, the assurance of "ID certainty" and a lack of understanding about the future of such privacy invasions all spell a future of abuse, the willing public herd duping themselves to accept the unacceptable.

And we urge our members and visitors to oppose all types of privacy invasions, but especially those types that print you for life within a government database.

The last thing we need is a database of every last face in America being used by federal and state governments whose propensity for the exertion of ever-increasing control is now beyond question.  If we are going to create database of people's faces, fingerprints, retinas, DNA codes or anything of the sort, let us begin by logging every single government employee first -- from federal down to your local line cop -- and We Their Bosses can decide how best to use that database to assure that our rights are protected.


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