Masks for the Mass Surveillance Age

From GOOD. The ninth annual Biometrics for Government and Law Enforcement conference kicks off today in Arlington, Virginia, where the F.B.I., Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Army, California Border Patrol, and more gather to plot the future of snagging bad guys. This year’s festivities showcase the F.B.I.’s new $1.2 billion “Next Generation Identification” system (N.G.I.)—taken fully operational last September—a massive database and suite of tools (accessible by 18,000 federal, state, local, tribal, and international agencies) for capturing, storing, and analyzing fingerprints, palm prints, faces, and iris biometrics. The bureau calls it “a significant step forward for the criminal justice community in utilizing biometrics as an investigative enabler.” In other words, the robocops are coming.

Biometrics, or ways of identifying individuals based on singular physical characteristics, have been used for criminal investigation since ancient imperial China began tracking citizens’ fingerprints, but recent advancements have taken body and face quantification mainstream. Your thumb unlocks your iPhone, Japanese and Polish A.T.M.s come equipped with fingertip vein pattern recognition, Dubai police officers wear Google Glass with facial recognition software, and, as part of the N.G.I. rollout, 62 U.S. police departments are currently field-testing handheld iris and facial recognition devices. But how will this information be compiled, and what can these agencies presume to know about an individual from biometric identification? Critics point to experiments like gay face studies, and other data-driven attempts to standardize how we see large groups of people, as proof that biometrics can ultimately be as pseudoscientific as the 19th century pursuits of phrenology and anthropometry, which attempted to read into a person’s identity based on say, the length of one’s left foot or the shape of an individual’s skull.

Concern for a world beyond the watch of government, free from systematically monitored and restricted public visibility, is the broad civil rights challenge tackled by artist and University of Buffalo Professor Zach Blas’s work. Blas’s mask projects, designed to visualize the way computers mathematically understand and read human faces, reject the safety of surveillance and propose a rebellion in the form of public opacity. Read more…