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No hiding place - facial biometrics will ID you, RSN

Falling costs and error rates threaten to eliminate privacy

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There’s going to be some fallout, if you ask me. Here’s why: You have no control over what pictures of you other people post on the Internet. Suppose there’s a picture of me in a mosque somewhere or coming out of the Social Workers’ Party bring ‘n buy sale or heading in to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I believe these things are private matters, so I can resolve not to mention them on my blog, not to post pictures of me in mosques, perhaps I might even be able to persuade my friends not to post any pictures of me at prayer, carrying a Lenin lampshade or on the scales. But someone I don't know, and who doesn't know me, takes a picture that has me in it and posts in on the web somewhere.

Meanwhile, someone has set their spider off crawling the Internet. My face is one of the faces loaded from LinkedIn, or our corporate website, or a conference site, or wherever. The spider finds my face in the lampshade picture and adds it to the catalogue. Now, the “secret” is out, and catalogued, and there's nothing that can be done about it. Nothing.

Now, some people would argue that there are legitimate reasons for wanting this kind of system. For instance, in the Mexican city of Leon – where drug cartels are rife – iris and face scanners are being installed to analyse approximately 50 people per minute as they walk the streets. This means that the system can monitor an entire room and keep a constant watch over who is present, sending identification information to relevant authorities.

We should bear in mind that this technology is available to the drug cartels as well, so if they’re not getting the feed from this system, they’ll soon make their own. In fact, pretty much anyone will be able to have their own system like this, and they won’t even have to install the cameras themselves... In the UK, a new service pays the public to monitor live commercial CCTV footage online! It’s just been launched in Devon. Internet Eyes will pay up to £1,000 to subscribers who report suspicious activity such as shoplifting.

Remember those distributed tasks that we used to download as screensavers? Any day now we'll be able to download a Crimewatch screensaver that scans the CCTV feeds while we're not using our computers and looks for the top 10 most wanted. And debt management companies will be able to look for defaulters and the DWP will be able to look for deadbeat dads, and so on.

Unless we introduce a firm plan for online anonymity pretty soon, we’re not going to have any anonymity at all. What I mean by this is that I cannot see any plausible roadmap that delivers offline privacy other than wandering around all day wearing comedy disguises (see, for example, the recent assassination in Dubai)... and they will only get us so far, before voice analysis, gait analysis and so on take their toll. The falling costs of biometrics and the exponential power of Big Brother (ie, us) not only remove privacy as a possibility, they do so in fairly short order. This may have the unexpected consequence of driving more interpersonal and corporate interaction into virtual worlds. It is only in virtual worlds that technology is available in any reasonable timescale that can deliver individual privacy.

I wrote some years ago that one might imagine a flight to virtual communities, where mathematics (in the form of cryptography) provides an impenetrable defence against crime and disorder that the metal barriers of a gated community cannot. This makes it all the more of a priority that any framework that we develop to manage identities in cyberspace is centred on privacy. So write to your MP immediately and tell him or her that you want “user-centred identity” and “privacy-enhancing technology” at the heart of the government’s IT strategy. (I’m sure they’ll know what you mean.) There is no point complaining about the use of biometrics in the real world, but there is a point in building a virtual alternative. ®

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