Tag: BuzzFeed News

To others we are not ourselves but a performer in their lives cast for a part we do not even know that we are playing

Surveillance, technology, and society

Last week, the London Metropolitan Police (‘the Met’) proudly announced that they’ve begun using ‘LFR’, which is their neutral-sounding acronym for something incredibly invasive to the privacy of everyday people in Britain’s capital: Live Facial Recognition.

It’s obvious that the Met expect some pushback here:

The Met will begin operationally deploying LFR at locations where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders. Each deployment will have a bespoke ‘watch list’, made up of images of wanted individuals, predominantly those wanted for serious and violent offences. 

At a deployment, cameras will be focused on a small, targeted area to scan passers-by. The cameras will be clearly signposted and officers deployed to the operation will hand out leaflets about the activity. The technology, which is a standalone system, is not linked to any other imaging system, such as CCTV, body worn video or ANPR.

London Metropolitan Police

Note the talk of ‘intelligence’ and ‘bespoke watch lists’, as well as promises that LFR will not be linked any other systems. (ANPR, for those not familiar with it, is ‘Automatic Number Plate Recognition’.) This, of course, is the thin end of the wedge and how these things start — in a ‘targeted’ way. They’re expanded later, often when the fuss has died down.


Meanwhile, a lot of controversy surrounds an app called Clearview AI which scrapes publicly-available data (e.g. Twitter or YouTube profiles) and applies facial recognition algorithms. It’s already in use by law enforcement in the USA.

The size of the Clearview database dwarfs others in use by law enforcement. The FBI’s own database, which taps passport and driver’s license photos, is one of the largest, with over 641 million images of US citizens.

The Clearview app isn’t available to the public, but the Times says police officers and Clearview investors think it will be in the future.

The startup said in a statement Tuesday that its “technology is intended only for use by law enforcement and security personnel. It is not intended for use by the general public.” 

Edward Moyer (CNET)

So there we are again, the technology is ‘intended’ for one purpose, but the general feeling is that it will leak out into others. Imagine the situation if anyone could identify almost anyone on the planet simply by pointing their smartphone at them for a few seconds?

This is a huge issue, and one that politicians and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic are both ill-equipped to deal with and particularly concerned about. As the BBC reports, the European Commission is considering a five-year ban on facial recognition in public spaces while it figures out how to regulate the technology:

The Commission set out its plans in an 18-page document, suggesting that new rules will be introduced to bolster existing regulation surrounding privacy and data rights.

It proposed imposing obligations on both developers and users of artificial intelligence, and urged EU countries to create an authority to monitor the new rules.

During the ban, which would last between three and five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed”.

BBC News

I can’t see the genie going back in this particular bottle and, as Ian Welsh puts it, this is the end of public anonymity. He gives the examples of the potential for all kinds of abuse, from an increase in rape, to abuse by corporations, to an increase in parental surveillance of children.

The larger issue is this: people who are constantly under surveillance become super conformers out of defense. Without true private time, the public persona and the private personality tend to collapse together. You need a backstage — by yourself and with a small group of friends to become yourself. You need anonymity.

When everything you do is open to criticism by everyone, you will become timid and conforming.

When governments, corporations, schools and parents know everything, they will try to control everything. This often won’t be for your benefit.

Ian Welsh

We already know that self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship, and live facial recognition means we’re going to have to do a whole lot more of it in the near future.

So what can we do about it? Welsh thinks that this technology should be made illegal, which is one option. However, you can’t un-invent technologies. So live facial recognition is going to be used (lawfully) by some organisations, even if it were restricted to state operatives. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than everyone having it?


At a recent workshop I ran, I was talking during one of the breaks to one person who couldn’t really see the problem I had raised about surveillance capitalism. I have to wonder if they would have a problem with live facial recognition? From our conversation, I’d suspect not.

Remember that facial recognition is not 100% accurate and (realistically) never can be. So there will be false positives. Let’s say your face ends up on a ‘watch list’ or a ‘bad actor’ database shared with many different agencies and retailers. All of a sudden, you’ve got yourself a very big problem.


As BuzzFeed News reports, around half of US retailers are either using live facial recognition, or have plans to use it. At the moment, companies like FaceFirst do not facilitate the sharing of data across their clients, but you can see what’s coming next:

[Peter Trepp, CEO of FaceFirst] said the database is not shared with other retailers or with FaceFirst directly. All retailers have their own policies, but Trepp said often stores will offer not to press charges against apprehended shoplifters if they agree to opt into the store’s shoplifter database. The files containing the images and identities of people on “the bad guy list” are encrypted and only accessible to retailers using their own systems, he said.

FaceFirst automatically purges visitor data that does not match information in a criminal database every 14 days, which is the company’s minimum recommendation for auto-purging data. It’s up to the retailer if apprehended shoplifters or people previously on the list can later opt out of the database.

Leticia Miranda (BuzzFeed News)

There is no opt-in, no consent sought or gathered by retailers. This is a perfect example of technology being light years ahead of lawmaking.


This is all well-and-good in situations where adults are going into public spaces, but what about schools, where children are often only one step above prisoners in terms of the rights they enjoy?

Recode reports that, in schools, the surveillance threat to students goes beyond facial recognition. So long as authorities know generally what a student looks like, they can track them everywhere they go:

Appearance Search can find people based on their age, gender, clothing, and facial characteristics, and it scans through videos like facial recognition tech — though the company that makes it, Avigilon, says it doesn’t technically count as a full-fledged facial recognition tool

Even so, privacy experts told Recode that, for students, the distinction doesn’t necessarily matter. Appearance Search allows school administrators to review where a person has traveled throughout campus — anywhere there’s a camera — using data the system collects about that person’s clothing, shape, size, and potentially their facial characteristics, among other factors. It also allows security officials to search through camera feeds using certain physical descriptions, like a person’s age, gender, and hair color. So while the tool can’t say who the person is, it can find where else they’ve likely been.

Rebecca Heilweil (Recode)

This is a good example of the boundaries of technology that may-or-may-not be banned at some point in the future. The makers of Appearance Search, Avigilon, claim that it’s not facial recognition technology because the images it captures and analyses are tied to the identity of a particular person:

Avigilon’s surveillance tool exists in a gray area: Even privacy experts are conflicted over whether or not it would be accurate to call the system facial recognition. After looking at publicly available content about Avigilon, Leong said it would be fairer to call the system an advanced form of characterization, meaning that the system is making judgments about the attributes of that person, like what they’re wearing or their hair, but it’s not actually claiming to know their identity.

Rebecca Heilweil (Recode)

You can give as many examples of the technology being used for good as you want — there’s one in this article about how the system helped discover a girl was being bullied, for example — but it’s still intrusive surveillance. There are other ways of getting to the same outcome.


We do not live in a world of certainty. We live in a world where things are ambiguous, unsure, and sometimes a little dangerous. While we should seek to protect one another, and especially those who are most vulnerable in society, we should think about the harm we’re doing by forcing people to live the totality of their lives in public.

What does that do to our conceptions of self? To creativity? To activism? Live facial recognition technology, as well as those technologies that exist in a grey area around it, is the hot-button issue of the 2020s.


Image by Kirill Sharkovski. Quotation-as-title by Elizabeth Bibesco.

Friday fablings

I couldn’t ignore these things this week:

  1. The 2010s Broke Our Sense Of Time (BuzzFeed News) — “Everything good, bad, and complicated flows through our phones, and for those not living some hippie Walden trip, we operate inside a technological experience that moves forward and back, and pulls you with it…. You can find yourself wondering why you’re seeing this now — or knowing too well why it is so. You can feel amazing and awful — exult in and be repelled by life — in the space of seconds. The thing you must say, the thing you’ve been waiting for — it’s always there, pulling you back under again and again and again. Who can remember anything anymore?”
  2. Telling Gareth Bale that Johnson is PM took away banterpocalypse’s sole survivor (The Guardian) — “The point is: it is more than theoretically conceivable that Johnson could be the shortest-serving prime minister in 100 years, and thus conceivable that Gareth Bale could have remained ignorant of his tenure in its entirety. Before there were smartphones and so on, big news events that happened while you were on holiday felt like they hadn’t truly happened. Clearly they HAD happened, in some philosophical sense or other, but because you hadn’t experienced them unfolding live on the nightly news, they never felt properly real.”
  3. Dreaming is Free (Learning Nuggets) — “When I was asked to keynote the Fleming College Fall Teaching & Learning Day, I thought it’d be a great chance to heed some advice from Blondie (Dreaming is free, after all) and drop a bunch of ideas for digital learning initiatives that we could do and see which ones that we can breath some life into. Each of these ideas are inspired by some open, networked and/or connectivist learning experiences that are already out there.”
  4. Omniviolence Is Coming and the World Isn’t Ready (Nautilus) — “The trouble is that if anyone anywhere can attack anyone anywhere else, then states will become—and are becoming—unable to satisfy their primary duty as referee. It’s a trend toward anarchy, “the war of all against all,” as Hobbes put it—in other words a condition of everyone living in constant fear of being harmed by their neighbors.”
  5. We never paid for Journalism (iDiallo) — “At the end of the day, the price that you and I pay, whether it is for the print copy or digital, it is only a very small part of the revenue. The price paid for the printed copy was by no means sustaining the newspaper business. It was advertisers all along. And they paid the price for the privilege of having as many eyeballs the newspaper could expose their ads to.”
  6. Crossing Divides: How a social network could save democracy from deadlock (BBC News) — “This was completely different from simply asking them to vote via an app. vTaiwan gave participants the agenda-setting power not just to determine the answer, but also define the question. And it didn’t aim to find a majority of one side over another, but achieve consensus across them.”
  7. Github removes Tsunami Democràtic’s APK after a takedown order from Spain (TechCrunch) — “While the Tsunami Democràtic app could be accused of encouraging disruption, the charge of “terrorism” is clearly overblown. Unless your definition of terrorism extends to harnessing the power of peaceful civil resistance to generate momentum for political change.”
  8. You Choose (inessential) — “You choose the web you want. But you have to do the work. A lot of people are doing the work. You could keep telling them, discouragingly, that what they’re doing is dead. Or you could join in the fun.”
  9. Agency Is Key (gapingvoid) — “People don’t innovate (“Thrive” mode) when they’re scared. Instead, they keep their heads down (“Survive” mode).”

Image by False Knees

There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless

A quotation from a short story from Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths provides the title for today’s article. I want to dig into the work of danah boyd and the transcript of a talk she gave recently, entitled Agnotology and Epistemological Fragmentation. It helps us understand what’s going on behind the seemingly-benign fascias of social networks and news media outlets.

She explains the title of her talk:

Epistemology is the term that describes how we know what we know. Most people who think about knowledge think about the processes of obtaining it. Ignorance is often assumed to be not-yet-knowledgeable. But what if ignorance is strategically manufactured? What if the tools of knowledge production are perverted to enable ignorance? In 1995, Robert Proctor and Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” to describe the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance. In an edited volume called Agnotology, Proctor and Londa Schiebinger collect essays detailing how agnotology is achieved. Whether we’re talking about the erasure of history or the undoing of scientific knowledge, agnotology is a tool of oppression by the powerful.

danah boyd

Having already questioned ‘media literacy’ the way it’s currently taught through educational institutions and libraries, boyd explains how the alt-right are streets ahead of educators when it comes to pushing their agenda:

One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material. And then to make sure that what scientific information is available, is undermined. One tactic is to exploit “data voids.” These are areas within a search ecosystem where there’s no relevant data; those who want to manipulate media purposefully exploit these. Breaking news is one example of this.

[…]

Today’s drumbeat happens online. The goal is no longer just to go straight to the news media. It’s to first create a world of content and then to push the term through to the news media at the right time so that people search for that term and receive specific content. Terms like caravan, incel, crisis actor. By exploiting the data void, or the lack of viable information, media manipulators can help fragment knowledge and seed doubt.

danah boyd

Harold Jarche uses McLuhan’s tetrads to understand this visually, commenting: “This is an information war. Understanding this is the first step in fighting for democracy.”

Harold Jarche on Agnotology

We can teach children sitting in classrooms all day about checking URLs and the provenance of the source, but how relevant is that when they’re using YouTube as their primary search engine? Returning to danah boyd:

YouTube has great scientific videos about the value of vaccination, but countless anti-vaxxers have systematically trained YouTube to make sure that people who watch the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s videos also watch videos asking questions about vaccinations or videos of parents who are talking emotionally about what they believe to be the result of vaccination. They comment on both of these videos, they watch them together, they link them together. This is the structural manipulation of media.

danah boyd

It’s not just the new and the novel. Even things that are relatively obvious to those of us who have grown up as adults online are confusing to older generations. As this article by BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman points out, conspiracy-believing retirees have disproportionate influence on our democratic processes:

Older people are also more likely to vote and to be politically active in other ways, such as making political contributions. They are wealthier and therefore wield tremendous economic power and all of the influence that comes with it. With more and more older people going online, and future 65-plus generations already there, the online behavior of older people, as well as their rising power, is incredibly important — yet often ignored.

Craig Silverman

So when David Buckingham asks ‘Who needs digital literacy?’ I think the answer is everyone. Having been a fan of his earlier work, it saddens me to realise that he hasn’t kept up with the networked era:

These days, I find the notion of digital literacy much less useful – and to some extent, positively misleading. The fundamental problem is that the idea is defined by technology itself. It makes little sense to distinguish between texts (or media) on the grounds of whether they are analogue or digital: almost all media (including print media) involve the use of digital technology at some stage or other. Fake news and disinformation operate as much in old, analogue media (like newspapers) as they do online. Meanwhile, news organisations based in old media make extensive and increasing use of online platforms. The boundaries between digital and analogue may still be significant in some situations, but they are becoming ever more blurred.

David Buckingham

Actually, as Howard Rheingold pointed out a number of years ago in Net Smart, and as boyd has done in her own work, networks change everything. You can’t seriously compare pre-networked and post-networked cultures in any way other than in contrast.

Buckingham suggests that, seeing as the (UK) National Literacy Trust are on the case, we “don’t need to reinvent the wheel”. The trouble is that the wheel has already been reinvented, and lots of people either didn’t notice, or are acting as though it hasn’t been.

There’s a related article by Anna Mckie in the THE entitled Teaching intelligence: digital literacy in the ‘alternative facts’ era which, unfortunately, is now behind a paywall. It reports on a special issue of the journal Teaching in Higher Education where the editors have brought together papers on the contribution made by Higher Education to expertise and knowledge in the age of ‘alternative facts’:

[S]ocial media has changed the dynamic of information in our society, [editor] Professor Harrison added. “We’ve moved away from the idea of experts who assess information to one where the validity of a statement is based on the likes, retweets and shares it gets, rather than whether the information is valid.”

The first task of universities is to go back to basics and “help students to understand the difference between knowledge and information, and how knowledge is created, which is separate to how information is created”, Professor Harrison said. “Within [each] discipline, what are the skills needed to assess that?”

Many assume that schools or colleges are teaching this, but that is not the case, he added. “Academics should also be wary of the extent to which they themselves understand the new paradigms of knowledge creation,” Professor Harrison warned.

Anna McKie

One of the reasons I decided not to go into academia is that, certain notable exceptions aside, the focus is on explaining rather than changing. Or, to finish with another quotation, this time from Karl Marx, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”


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