[Dave Birch] Predictions are difficult, as they say, especially about the future. Earlier in the year, we were trying to imagine what financial services would look like 50 years from now. There are different approaches to this kind of futurology. 

The year was 1999, and Steven Spielberg was preparing to turn Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” into a $100 million action movie starring Tom Cruise. There was just one problem… he wanted his film to be a realistic depiction of how things might actually look in 50 years. So Spielberg convened an ad hoc think tank: He invited a small group of the foremost thinkers in science and technology, along with a handful of people involved with the movie, to hang out for a weekend and talk about the future.

[From Inside Minority Report’s ‘Idea Summit,’ Visionaries Saw the Future | Underwire | Wired.com]

They missed something. Something that occurred to me while watching Soylent Green, one of my wife’s favourite films. We watched it again a few months ago. It has a great story, great acting and is wonderfully directed. But it doesn’t work for me any more. The future New York, that looked so real to me a few months ago, looked odd. After a while I realised why: no mobile phones. No movie set in a future that is now, or soon, works any more without mobile phones in. It looks funny to see people walking around without mobile phones. This made me ask the “Spielberg Question”: What would an accurate science fiction movie of future New York look like?

I think I’ve got an idea. It begins with “real” names (again). I’d been thinking about “real” names on Facebook in the context of using the social graph as an alternative to conventional credit checking agencies, and it occurred to me that a combination of the social graph and face recognition might tell you which social graphs a person belonged to, irrespective of which social graph the profile that they gave you belonged to, if you see what I mean. So you could form a pretty accurate opinion about someone given a picture of them and no other details. Last week, I discovered that Mark Zuckerbeg, being considerably smarter than me, had already thought of this.

The social network this week acquired Face.com, a face-recognition technology company whose Facebook and mobile apps can identify people’s faces in photos.

[From Why faces matter to Facebook – CNN.com]

Note that you can change your privacy settings so that if you are tagged by face recognition in a photo that someone uploads, the tags are not made public. But they are still there, of course, in Facebook’s database. This made me wonder if the face recognition could be used for identification for Facebook’s own purposes.

Facebook on Thursday began asking certain popular users to upload photos of their government issued identification cards to help the social network test a new accounts verification service… Facebook did not elaborate on how exactly it will go about verifying the IDs or the accounts supposedly attached to them.

[From Facebook Asking Some Users To Upload Government Issued IDs | TPM Idea Lab]

This seemed a bit pointless to me, unless Facebook could have access to the government databases in order to verify the documents. Unless… what if Facebook has no intention of using your Portugese fishing licence to identify you by contacting the Portugese fishing authorities to find out of the licence is valid and who it was issued to and what supporting documentation was provided? What if they just want the photo so that they can feed it into the face recognition database. Once the face recognition can tie your profile to a real identity, any real identity, then it’s suddenly worth a lot more to certain kinds of apps.

A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends.

[From Selling You on Facebook – WSJ.com]

Now hitherto this sort of thing didn’t bother me, because none of my Facebook profiles are in my “real name”. I tend to use Facebook Connect to log in to things here and there because I’m very lazy and because the “default” Facebook profile that I use is, in itself, an experiment. On more than one occasion, however, I’ve gone to log in to something using Facebook and then cancelled out when the site asks for access to the social graph that includes my actual friends. Apparently plenty of people don’t, and I can see the argument that it’s much harder to forge a social graph then an identity. But that’s now, because social graphs are new.

I’m sure there are plenty of people like me who have been growing entirely false social graphs for some years now. I do it as an experiment, but I suspect other people will be doing it for more sinister purposes. It will surely be a matter of time before criminals sell fake social graphs, just as they see fake identity packages right now. Look at last week’s example in the UK: criminals were selling identity packs that included bogus utility bills, letters addressed to the fake identity and other “support” around counterfeit passports and driving licences and that sort of thing.

The Metropolitan Police has warned it is working to track down 11,000 customers of a gang that specialised in providing fake IDs.

[From BBC News – Identity theft gang’s customers wanted by police]

Can we get round this by getting people to hold up a driving licence to a webcam? By itself, no. Since Facebook has no idea whether the photocopied driving licence that I’m scanning in is real or not, or whether it’s mine or not, or whether it’s me that’s holding it up or not, that’s not going to help. China has already tried the Facebook approach anyway.

People with computers and Internet connections at home have no problem with the new rules, which generally do not effect them. Lower income individuals, including migrant workers, are hit much harder by the new rules. Some parents, believing that their children will continue going to Net cafes despite the new rules, expressed concern that the restrictions will drive them to “black cafes” that may be unsafe.

[From China’s Internet Cafes Respond to ID Check Rules | China Hearsay]

In other words, the requirement for increased identification and authentication merely drives people to access in completely unregulated an unauthorised ways. But there’s another Chinese system that Facebook might want to look into. David Moss commented on the accuracy of face recognition systems that are not good enough for prime time yet. But they are improving all the time. If Laos can do it, I’m pretty sure Tesco or British Airways can.

I crossed from Laos to China last year and imagine my surprise when my name was called out before I had even crossed the white line in front of the immigration control desk.

The officious looking guy was actually quite chatty and he revealed they were trying to improve their service by greeting people personally. He showed me my mug shot on their screen alongside their reference visa photo.

Turns out that the visa photo you supply (all nicely trimmed with a special device they supply) are fed into their face recognition system so upon arrival they are able to greet you!

[From No hiding place – facial biometrics will ID you, RSN • The Register Forums]

Why does Facebook need you scan any documents at all when they can just let their face scanning software potter around in the database and match up tagged photos with profiles? This will make Facebook an electronic Chonqing.

The Chongqing Municipality has signed a contract with China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) to build China’s biggest video surveillance system, based on the Internet of Things (IoT) technology, the China News Service (CNS) reported Monday. The video surveillance system will cover Chongqing at its entirety with cameras and wireless sensors… Over half a million cameras will be installed in the main districts of the city.

[From Chongqing to build China’s biggest IoT video surveillance system – GlobalTimes]

So in the future your face will constantly be monitored both online and offline. Hence my prediction about future New York. Any science fiction film that doesn’t show everyone wearing burkhas in public will look as dated as Soylent Green. Think about it. One reasonable working definition of “privacy” is the one founded on choice: it’s about choosing what you reveal to people. So, how can you make this choice in a world of ubiquitous face recognition, social graphs and annoying “friends” with camera phones? The answer is the burkha, hence my new business venture. Facebook blue burkhas for the connected citizens of the future who want some, or indeed any, privacy.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers



1 comment

  1. Woody Allen: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken. The doctor says, Well, why don’t you turn him in? And the guy says, I would but I need the eggs”.

    As with those eggs, so with biometrics based on facial geometry.

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