As an avid fan of fantasy and science fiction, there are times when I am disappointed in the speed at which we are developing the advanced technology I see in books, television shows and movies. Where are our jet packs? Flying cars? Why do we not yet have a replicator to create whatever food we want exactly when we want it? Movies that came out in the 70s and 80s suggested we would have such monumental technology by now and yet I am still firmly planted on the ground, stuck eating whatever is in my refrigerator.
And yet, there are also moments when technology evolves so fast that we almost miss the importance of what has been discovered. Every so often I will see a glimpse of something so advanced I feel as though I have been transported to the future. It seems extraordinarily beyond us, and yet here it is being used right now.
One of those pieces of technology was introduced in a big way by Facebook just a few months ago. Facebook began offering its 600 million members something straight out of science fiction, facial recognition software. Using information from the 90 billion pictures that have previously been uploaded to Facebook, it will now automatically scan any new pictures to identify specific people in the picture and make those suggestions so you can “tag” them. Essentially, Facebook now has enough information on all its members and the right programming to know instantaneously if a picture of you is uploaded to the site.
You can opt out, not allowing Facebook to suggest you to those who might upload pictures of you. However, there is much controversy around the fact that regardless of whether you have opted in or out, Facebook still has your facial profile collected in their database. There is currently a lawsuit pending in Germany against Facebook where many are demanding the right to take their facial profile out of Facebook’s database entirely. Facebook is not the only website to use this technology. Google’s Picasa picture organizer and Apple iPhoto both use facial recognition software on your laptop, not the internet, so that searches can be run on a specific person or group of people..
This same software is being used in places outside of the internet as well. Where I live in Chicago there are over 50 bars that are using a new app called SceneTap. SceneTap uses cameras with facial recognition software to identify the ratio of men to women in the bar as well as their average age. While the cameras cannot identify specific people within the crowd, people can tap into the information SceneTap provides to decide where to go on their night out.
Immersive Labs, a company out of Manhattan, has developed software for digital billboards that use cameras to approximate age and determine sex and attention level of people as they pass the billboard. Then these smart signs deliver ads based on the information the cameras pick up, creating a display that is custom fit for you as you walk by. These signs are scheduled to roll out this month in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.
These types of facial recognition programs have been used for years by law enforcement. Minnesota uses facial recognition on the driver’s license photos they collect to flag people who are repeatedly trying to enter the country illegally and using different names each time. Similar programs now allow police officers to decipher and identify graffiti. Not only can it break down the uploaded image but it can point police to specific gangs and individuals based on other graffiti bearing the same design or information.
Right now Facebook and other uses of facial recognition software are for fairly benign purposes as far as I can tell. When computer programs take in information from our website surfing and customize ads to our particular wants or needs, it is not so different to have advertisements very generally customized for us outside of our computer. However, in the hands of the wrong people, this type of technology could have some serious consequences when it comes to our privacy.
This type of technology is one that we have to watch very carefully, and especially speak to our youth about. They need to be cautious about not only what they put on the internet, but how they are identified on websites like Facebook, especially when the pictures posted of them without their knowledge or consent could follow them for a very long time. They also should be aware of how marketing is evolving. Youth and adults already are marketed to nearly around the clock, but the addition of focused ad campaigns based on what your perceived needs and wants might be takes the push of materialism up a notch. Our youth need to focus on things of eternal consequence, rather than temporal physical things, but this gets harder and harder as advertising gets more intense in our culture.
We are truly blessed to have a God who knows each one of us individually, without any special software. God knows where we are and who we are without cameras or programming, and He even knows the number of hairs on our head. While we take comfort in being truly known by our God, it is more than a little scary to know that a sinful human being may be watching us and could soon be able to identify us on cameras and in pictures everywhere we go. We must be aware of who and how we are being identified and not be blind to the way technology is changing all around us.
This isn’t science fiction, it is science reality. We might not have hoverboards yet, but technology is coming at us quickly and leaving very little time for us to consider its consequences. Only God knows what innovation will come next, and He will give us what we need to handle it.