The 2002 Spielberg movie Minority Report described a dystopian future in which crime prevention moves to a whole new level. By the 2050s thanks to the PreCrime Unit you could get arrested for something others thought you were going to do even though, at the time you were picked up, quite literally a criminal thought might never have entered your head. But it would. They knew that. This justified your early apprehension. It was a preventative measure. Apparently free will had died.
In the film things quickly started going from very bad to much worse. Our hero, Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise), had to escape to save himself and the world from the totalitarian nightmare into which it had voluntarily walked.
If only it were that simple. One of the key tools the cops of the future had access to was a database of everybody's retinal scans. Wherever Anderton goes in his quest for justice, as soon as his irises are picked up by remote sensors he is in immediate danger. This forces him to seek a back-street eye transplant. He has to acquire new retinas that won't constantly betray his whereabouts.
Anderton doesn't know whose peepers are going to be installed in his eye sockets. He soon finds out. In the only comic moment in the film the self-evidently Caucasian fugitive walks into a Gap store - yes they are still around in 2050 - where he is greeted by a chatty hologram hailing him as Mr Yakamoto and asking how he liked the t-shirts he recently bought. An early indication of how certain kinds of location-based advertising worked out!
No. I have not decided to launch into film criticism but I was put in mind of this sequence by a series of stories which have appeared recently. When you start knitting them together I hope you get why.
Iris scans are available at Terminal 5
Minority Report was set over forty years from now. Iris scans are here today. In January, 2011, Mexico said they were going to incorporate them into their national ID card scheme. A few years ago I voluntarily had my retinas photographed by the UK Borders Agency who then encoded the image and put it on the microchip in my passport.
This means at major UK airports I can often miss the queues and zip through immigration faster by using the automated iris scanning booths that are available.
I say often because the booths seem to be out of action rather a lot, and even when they work I sometimes have to engage in an occasionally protracted version of the Watusi to align my pupils with the crosshairs of the apparatus. At Heathrow my terpsichorean prowess was on one occasion rewarded by a loud cheer and round of applause by a bemused group of travellers waiting behind me on an evening when only a single kiosk was running. I was the only show in town.
Based on that experience I think we may be some way off a remote scanner in a shopping mall being able to pick me out in a crowd at a hundred paces as they did the fictional Anderton but you can be sure someone is working on it.
Iris's Big Brother. Facial recognition
Running alongside, maybe to supplement or even replace iris scans altogether, we also have facial recognition software. This too has been integrated into UK airport operations by the Borders Agency. Their booths are a lot easier to use than the iris scanners so I opt for them whenever they are available. No dancing is required.
Law enforcement has been using this kind of software for many years in a variety of different settings. It is thought to be particularly useful in surveillance operations helping to scan large crowds for known villains, particularly known terrorists. That's fine but when you see police officers out with their video cameras randomly filming protesters on public demonstrations you start to get a bit more worried.
The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas deploys facial recognition software on some of its digital displays. The idea is that when you look at the board a camera feeds the software which instantly works out your age and gender and makes suggestions about which of its many restaurants, bars or other services might interest you most. Minor glitches in the software suggest comic possibilities that are legion and obvious so I will exercise uncharacteristic restraint and pass quickly on. There's only so much truth you can take when you're shopping.
Cheese. Feet. Faces
Kraft and Adidas are lining up to give facial recognition a go. Cheese. Feet. Faces. Am I missing something? Not really. Adidas VP Chris Aubrey explains
If a retailer can offer the right products quickly, people are more likely to buy something.
Anyway in future as you approach an Adidas store your picture will be taken and analyzed. By the time you cross the threshold you can expect all your gear will be gift wrapped and waiting for you. All you need to do is pay and go. Fast. I'm looking forward to the next stage in this evolution - the one where you just send the store your credit card and a link to your Flikr page wait to see what arrives in the post. That will save a lot of trouble.
Nighthawks in Chicago are being facially scanned by bar owners who are transmitting data about the demographics of the dance floor, checking out the male-female ratio and age mix. There's an app called SceneTap that you can use to check out the talent, or lack of it, and make your decision accordingly as to whether or not that's the right place for you that evening. Hmmm. I can see text messages to the bouncers on the door telling them we're a bit short of mid-20s female brunettes so only let them in for the next 30 minutes, then please select no more than six medium-height 30-something males but make sure none of them have freckles. We're already heavy on the freckles tonight.
Call me old-fashioned. No. Don't, because I'm not. David Thompson is a lawyer who specialises in privacy laws in the USA. He hit the nail right on the head when he said in a recent interview
The problem is that there are things we do that we don't need a permanent record of. I don't need other people to know where I have been and what I have been doing.
He might have added
And they have no right to know anyway
If facial recognition software is used at or in the vicinity of an abortion clinic or a cancer hospital? There have to be issues about consent. It may be completely true that you went to one or other of those establishments but nobody has any business, unilaterally, to tell anyone else that you did, yet that can always happen if someone has a picture of it.
To be fair the companies I have checked out that are thinking about using facial recognition software, at least in the retail space, say they are not planning to store your picture or link it to anything else. That's great but the very fact that they feel the need to reassures us on that point speaks volumes.
Google gets it right
Google seemingly developed an app which would have allowed you to take a photo of someone, say on the bus, then you could rapidly match it to their picture and profile online. Google decided to can it. Chairman Eric Schmidt said the decision was taken because
We built that technology and we witheld it because of the fact that people could use this stuff in a very, very bad way as well as in a good way
Well done Google. Remember where you saw that first! Now I'm trying to work out who else is going to do it anyway. It's not just children who would be easily fooled by a stranger approaching them on the street seeming to know so much about them. That could happen now with a determined stalker who had done their homework but the immediacy of a mobile app would take us all to an entirely new and dark place.
I don't think you have to be excessively paranoid or given to exaggerated anxieties about Minority Report type scenarios nonetheless to harbour some concerns about the sort of world we might be moving towards. Facial recognition software and many kinds of, not all, location apps are creating new possibilities which ought to be openly discussed and in places where nerds or interested parties do not dominate the air time.
The internet and the digital revolution which it sparked rode in on an anthem of liberation and enlarged freedoms. In fact they may be compressing our lives to an unacceptable degree, handing tools to tyrants that Orwell could never have imagined. And these tyrants don't have to be Governments.
Time for someone to get a grip?
I know the way the internet is set up means it is very hard for anyone to get a grip but I refuse to believe we are all doomed to just tootle along to the point where on a weekday I have to get an eye transplant to go fishing instead of to the office. There must be some things we can all agree upon and do.
PS I'm thinking of changing my name to Cassandra.