Tracking is moving offline as computers get smarter, and face recognition technology is gaining steam rapidly with distributed systems. There are already prototype glasses that identify people in your field of view and superimpose their names on them – such devices will end anonymity. The demand for the technology is immense, and no wonder: I would buy those glasses myself in a heartbeat.
One of the key challenges in policymaking right now is to make politicians understand that you can’t have separate rules and rights for the offline and online worlds, as it makes no sense even trying to separate them for the growing-up generation. The people coming of majority age today were born after the Web had its breakthrough in 1995; they have never been in a world where the Web wasn’t the go-to resource for everything. To them, trying to have different social contracts for offline and online is as foreign as having different social contracts for the oxygen and the nitrogen in the air we breathe.
There has been a consistent problem in the rights online not mirroring those offline. We don’t have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, or freedom of opinion online, rights that are taken for absolute and inviolable in the physical space. Censorship, tracking and wiretapping has become acceptable for governments that audit their own compliance with civil liberties, even if found totally revolting by the populace subjected to the abuses.
Our civil liberties are also being eroded offline. Following the hawkish complete re-interpretation of “reasonable” following September 11, 2001, most governments see every right and rule as being subject to exceptions in anything they call terror. People can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial if this is invoked. The word “terror”, in turn, has degraded so far as a concept that it is now basically defined as “anything the government doesn’t like”.
Seeing this erosion (or downright unilateral revocation) of the offline social contract, it can be expected that those rights cease to be honored online as well. There is some liquidity in the erosion – the rights that cease to exist offline will cease to exist online as well. But we can also observe an erosion in the opposite direction – namely with anonymity.
Google Glass is probably the most well-known example of a personal heads-up display, but there are many similar devices in the works. Some of them have facial recognition technology and cover your entire field of view. This means they have the ability to superimpose people’s names directly onto what you see.
Let’s take that again, because it sounds like science fiction but already exists: there are glasses that automatically identify people you see and superimpose their names right by their faces as you see them.
If this sounds scary, it’s because it is. This makes it possible for Law Enforcement to find wanted people with a minimum of patrol resources. That’s not even science fiction – this technology already exists.
Glasses for law enforcement that highlights suspected criminals directly in the field of view of police officers were field tested five years ago. They were tested by filling a cinema hall with people, and programming the officers’ glasses with the faces of some simulated “criminals” that were highlighted on sight for the officers.
It’s not hard to see the downsides of this in terms of the social contract. If you can’t take a single step outside without being recorded and tracked, how does that change our behavior?
But it sounds like an awesome social aid, that’s because it is that, too. I frequently forget people’s names and pretty much everybody I know complain about the same thing – the social requirement to recognize professional and personal connections is so strong, that I would buy such a device in a heartbeat, especially if it was small and unintrusive enough that the people around me didn’t see me using it.
With the addition of face tagging from Facebook and other sources, there is effectively already a gigantic database of what everybody looks like.
It is futile to even attempt to try keeping back this technology, simply because everybody will want it, not just governments: everybody. But it completely rewrites the social contract – online as well as offline. When everybody is identified all the time, by everybody watching, things change.
Outdoor anonymity will be severely eroded in ten years, and will be effectively gone in twenty.