I’ve been hesitant to write about this for a while. After months of entertaining the idea in my head, I figured I might as well get it out into writing. Not because it’s a brilliant idea (it’s neither brilliant nor original, at all) but because it’s a cool idea.
Well, cool might be the wrong way to put it. It’s cool if you’re a fucking dork, such as myself. Maybe I just like this idea because it would make my cyberpunk fantasies come true (although for someone as misanthropic as me, I would almost definitely begin to hate a masked movement as soon as it becomes popular).
On some level I know this is a ridiculous fantasy. Forget everyone else for a moment; I’ve had a Facebook for 8 years, and lord knows how compromised my privacy has been from that. What’s the significance of feeling a bit intruded-upon by the thought of facial recognition cameras in public, when Facebook can autotag me and my friends in photos with ridiculous ease?
So aware as I am of all these shortcomings–that it’s just a fantasy, that it wouldn’t be feasible, that even if it was pulled off it would look dumb as hell, etc–I still have to at least jot down the idea. Treat this as more of a thought experiment or a daydream than a serious suggestion.
Wouldn’t it be just a little bit cool? Think about it: facial recognition is fast-becoming a ubiquitous technology. Police around the world employ facial recognition technology. Chinese authorities have managed to take facial recognition to the most dystopian extent possible, from facial recognition sunglasses to a ridiculously robust infrastructure of cameras in major cities. It’s not just China: one study concluded that 50% of American adults are in a police facial recognition database. Some fast food places have been rolling out face scanning tech to make ordering easier. Even some schools are beginning to adopt them. Don’t think for a second that any authority (aside from a few idiots here and there) truly cares about using the tech to make everyone safer: it’s about having as much information as possible about citizens. London’s police chief is “completely comfortable” using facial recognition cameras around the city that are about 2% accurate.
Some of facial recognition’s applications may be more fad-like than lasting updates–although contrary to popular opinion, I think facial recognition in fast food places could become common. But the technology’s applications by the state is certainly going to become increasingly common, and I would imagine phones with facial-recognition unlock features signal the direction consumer tech is headed. Whether your device reads you face or not, the time is definitely coming when a common American will have difficulty avoiding facial recognition cameras in their cities. For some, the time has already come.
So imagine if there was a popular movement to cover up your face in public? Something simple, that doesn’t necessarily cover your whole face–no need to adopt a ski mask every time you want to go grocery shopping (although if you wanted to wear a mask, that would be pretty cool too). A scarf or a bandana with sunglasses could suffice. It’d be goofy, but I don’t see why humor needs to be barred. It’d sure make people uneasy, but that’s kind of the point–and that would serve as a good reminder of Big Brother anyway.
The thing I like to imagine most about this is the response. What would the response be? I would imagine police departments across the country would condemn it, saying it makes us all less safe or some such bullshit. National intelligence/security state professionals, establishment politicians and media personalities would talk about how it’s a silly fad at best, and at worst a dangerous one that makes it easier for terrorists to infiltrate. Or maybe it just wouldn’t be talked about–though I think at a certain threshold of visibility, media would have to at least cover something.
But aside from the predictable condemnation or lack of coverage, what would authorities practically do? Maybe cameras would turn their focus to your gait, not just your face. Or police would just get better cameras that can read the shapes of your lower face underneath a covering. Your phone’s metadata gives as much away as your face anyway, and who can really expect a movement to protect phone security? So of course, your privacy will still be to an extent compromised.
But would there be any laws passed to make covering your face more difficult? And if so, how harsh would they be? As I see it, in the United States any law banning what you can wear in public would almost certainly be regarded as unconstitutional. Would your city council pass an ordinance banning scarves in public? While I can see a few politicians trying, I doubt it would be a very successful attempt. And if some major city really did go so far as to ban certain accessories or types of clothing in public…well, I would imagine a government-enforced dress code would be far more unpopular than the actual surveillance cameras that prompted the situation in the first place and would only validate the cause of face-coverings. (I don’t think any of this is necessarily likely to happen, but it sure is dystopian hypothetical to play around with).
In sum, a popular movement to cover the face in public would be really cool. It doesn’t need to entail having masks: hoodies, scarves, sunglasses, and bandanas are pretty common and relatively accessible. A popular movement like this wouldn’t need to focus on total privacy–just stopping the onslaught of increasingly invasive technologies. And best of all, it would show popular resistance to surveillance in a very visible way–something we haven’t had much of.
It might not be such a terrible idea after all.
I probably ought to have ended it there, but here’s a cynical afterthought: maybe covering the face would be popular and accepted, and that would just give police, the state, and corporations the go-ahead to double-down on facial recognition.