Real-time facial recognition and the end of obscurity

Google GlassObscurity, and our expectation of it, is a concept I haven’t thought about before.  We know that modern uses of technology bring a whole host of concerns about threats to privacy.  We also know that people can post comments or images online anonymously, and that they don’t always live up to our highest ideals for civic conversation (see, for example, the very recent reports of anonymous users posting horrible tweets and pins to Robin Williams’s daughter) .  Obscurity relates to these, but is a whole new angle.

We expect obscurity when we are in a crowd or wandering in a public place.  It’s not so much that we expect to be anonymous–though, technically, that is there too–as we expect to not be noticed.  We expect that pretty much everyone in this crowd or shared place –including ourselves — is happy to pass by everyone else without even registering who it is they pass.  Obscurity means that if I passed you on thecrowd street, I wouldn’t really notice it, and then someone were to stop me 10 feet later, I would be unable to even correctly guess the color of the shirt you are wearing. Google pops up these synonyms for obscurity: of the state of being unknown, inconspicuous, or unimportant. And that promise of obscurity is useful, it allows us to go to the grocery store, or the movies, or a concert, any of the other places of our daily lives without having to think about who might be recognizing us, or watching us.

When we are diligently (obsessively?) tagging ourselves and our friends in photos we post to facebook or twitter or google+ or instragram or whatever, and when governments and other institutions (like schools) create databases of photos, we are adding to a massive trove of information that experts are figuring out how to use in real-time facial recognition. Add this feature to Google Glass, and you can no longer expect obscurity, because the technology will have no problem registering and remembering and identifying every person it passes.  How will this change social expectations?  If Glass recognizes someone in a crowd before I do, will I be expected to stop and chat?  If Glass gives someone else information about me, can they pretend that we have met before, you know, at that BBQ at Doug and Shelia’s last summer?  This article raises the very really concerns for the lives of protected populations, such as victims of domestic abuse.

This is an interesting example of how technology brings to the surface expectations and assumptions we didn’t really know we had — or at least, that I hadn’t fully appreciated for myself.   I look forward to some comm research in this area.

Erica Klarreich, “Hello, My Name Is…: Facial Recognition and Privacy Concerns”, Communications of the ACM, August 2014, p. 17-19.

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