The tech site Ars Technica recently ran an article on the proliferation of a little-known app called Facewatch. According to the articles writer Sebastian Anthony, “Facewatch is a system that lets retailers, publicans, and restaurateurs easily share private CCTV footage with the police and other Facewatch users. In theory, Facewatch lets you easily report shoplifters to the police, and to share the faces of generally unpleasant clients, drunks, etc. with other Facewatch users.” The idea is that retailers or officials can look out for these folks and either keep an eye on them or just ask them to leave. The system, in use in the UK, appears to have a high rate of success.
The story continues. Of course, all technologies eventually converge, so now you don’t have to “keep and eye out” for ner-do-wells your CCTV can do it for you. NeoFace from NEC works with the Facewatch list to do the scouting for you. According to NECs website: “NEC’s NeoFace Watch solution is specifically designed to integrate with existing surveillance systems by extracting faces in real time… and matching against a watch list of individuals.” In this case, it would be the Facewatch database. Ars’ Anthony, makes this connection: “In the film Minority Report, people are rounded up by the Precrime police agency before they actually commit the crime…with Facewatch, and you pretty much have the same thing: a system that automatically tars people with a criminal brush, irrespective of dozens of important variables.”
Anthony points out that,
“Facewatch lets you share ‘subjects of interest’ with other Facewatch users even if they haven’t been convicted. If you look at the shop owner in a funny way, or ask for the service charge to be removed from your bill, you might find yourself added to the ‘subject of interest’ list.”
The odds of an innocent being added to the watchlist are quite good. Malicious behavior aside, you could be logged as you wander past a government protest, forget your PIN number too many times at the ATM, or simply look too creepy in your Ray Bans and hoody.
The story underscores a couple of my past rants. First, we don’t make laws to protect against things that are impossible, so when the impossible happens, we shouldn’t be surprised that there isn’t a law to protect against it.1 It is another red flag that technology is moving, too fast and as it converges with other technologies it becomes radically unpredictable. Second, that technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics.2
There are a host personal apps, many which are available to our iPhones or Androids that are on the precarious line between legal and illegal, curious and invasive. And there are more to come.