Peek-a-Boo, I See You

Paula LaBrot

As vast as Los Angeles is, Topanga, population <10,000, has retained a small town feel, where neighbors recognize each other’s faces from community markets, restaurants, stores, schools, community fairs, dances, public meetings, cultural activities, farmer’s market and so on.

When I think of Topanga faces, I think of kindly Mr. Moon from the General Market, of Tom Mitchell, Topanga’s event angel, of Joanne Martinez, bright and stylish literary gardener extraordinaire, and Charley, playing his remarkable tin whistle…all the lines of that dear and tragic face.  

I may not always be able to attach a name to a face I recognize, but in the new, connected world I don’t have to worry about that. Facial recognition technology can detect faces, quantify their features and match them with stored data to identify a person. And I mean identify.

Imagine you are walking along wearing a pair of Google Glasses. You have a camera on the glasses which can snap a photo. Your “glasses” then scans data bases and identifies your subject. Name, address, phone, email, friends, family, interests, shopping habits, medical records…the works!  What a creepy thought that any passing stranger could identify you so easily, without you ever being aware of their interest.

Modern facial recognition technology relies on biometrics…measured maps of faces that are accurately matched to photos in existing data bases at lightning speed.  According to Ex-sight, a manufacturer of Video Analytics Software, “every face has numerous, distinguishable landmarks, the different peaks and valleys that make up facial features. Each human face has approximately 80 nodal points. Some of these measured by the Facial Recognition Technology are: distance between the eyes, width of the nose, depth of the eye sockets, shape of the cheekbones and length of the jaw line. These nodal points are measured creating a numerical code, called a faceprint.

Fortune Magazine reports Facebook’s Moment feature has a facial recognition version based off of machine learning and efforts to train computers to recognize objects more generally. “It is now able to identify a person with 83% accuracy, even when they aren’t facing a camera.” Facebook has over 350 billion photos in their database, with 250 million more added each day, enticing users with creative photo sharing apps. And Facebook sells those photos to marketers for big bucks.

The Guardian reports, “In Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi film “Minority Report,” ads are made more personal by using facial recognition technology. As Tom Cruise’s character walks down the street, facially recognized by ever-present cameras, he is bombarded with customized adverts for everything from new cars to alcoholic drinks. In 2014, a number of companies were already bringing these ideas to (digital) life. Tesco announced plans to install video screens at its checkouts around the country. These screens will use inbuilt cameras equipped with facial recognition algorithms to ascertain the age and gender of individual shoppers and target ads specifically to them.”

The security applications of facial recognition technology are obvious, for airports, stadiums,  banks and law enforcement to name a few. Face First has been used at retailers like Walmart and Saks Fifth Ave. identifying known criminals or litigious customers. There are apps that take attendance in classes or in the workplace…no more punching a card for a friend. Apps like Helping Faceless and Finding Rover help find missing children and pets. Chimps in the wild have been singled out and tracked with facial recognition software. And there are dark apps like Find Face that make you want to take down all your photos.

In China, facial recognition cameras have been used to catch thieves stealing toilet paper from public bathrooms. Video recordings of people j-walking have been displayed on electronic billboards to publicly shame transgressors. Students are allowed entrance into their dormitories by facial scanners. “The dream is for governments to be able to set up networked cameras in public locations, capable of constantly searching through the faces of people who are photographed,” says Xiaoou Tang, professor in the department of information engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and one of the world’s leading experts in facial recognition. Oh, Dear!

Being anonymous in public may be a thing of the past. You can wear special glasses whose refection of infrared light causes your face to blur out, but then you stand out even more. Facial recognition is here–it’s staying.

Tech author Luke Dormehl says of facial recognition, “You can’t make the giant, anonymous world as knowable as a small town.” He’s right. It’s a lot different “recognizing” strangers, who are still strangers no matter how much information you have on them. It’s not “recognizing” or knowing and missing Charley’s dear face, crinkling into a wrinkled, weathered topographical Topanga story that I loved. That’s a different kind of connection. Vamos a ver!


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace.

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