• Dr. Timothy Smith

Human Adaption in the Age of Surveillance

Security Camera

Human adaptability has few rivals in the animal kingdom, and when combined with our ability to make tools, shelter, transportation and clothing, it explains why people can be found all over the planet and are even living in a space station 249 miles above the surface of the earth. We adapt to new environments and survive in difficult conditions from deserts to congested city centers. Contrasting the life and challenges of survival for the Inuit living above the Arctic Circle surviving long dark winters of extreme cold with people living in the baking heat of the Sahara Desert with little water drives home the remarkable variety of climates to which people have adapted. We also adapt to other environmental pressures such as crowded cities with pollution and disease. In countries such as the United States and Great Britain, a new environmental pressure is emerging that will challenge people in different way--a surveillance environment eroding privacy. According to a survey conducted by Privacy International, Great Britain currently stands head and shoulders above any other country as the most surveilled state in the world. Additionally, countries such as Bahrain and China also conduct mass surveillance of their populace.

Will people adapt to the rapidly falling level of privacy? Privacy, be it online or in public places with security cameras and cell phones collecting images, is being degraded more rapidly today than ever with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). Today, AI performs more and more accurate facial recognition. In the past, a photo online could remain quite anonymous unless someone looked at it, recognized the person in the photo, and tagged it with a name. Today, facial recognition software combined with massive databases both in the public sector such as driver’s license data bases that contain names, addresses and photos or private sector platforms such as Facebook and Linked In make it possible to find people’s pictures and identify people in real time from surveillance camera feeds. The facial recognition programs can determine the distance between different parts of people’s faces and the texture of their skin. Combining these features and measurements each person with a picture online leaves a unique fingerprint of themself.

The facial recognition tools are good but are not perfect. For example, the programs still have a difficult time reading a profile photo with just one eye visible or only a part of the face is visible. This is good news for those who do not want to be surveilled. Not everyone is quietly adapting to the new surveillance environment. Several articles detail anti-surveillance techniques that will fool or confuse facial recognition programs. For example, the designer and privacy researcher Adam Harvey, developed a number of ways using fashion, hairstyles and makeup to confuse or redirect facial recognition. He found that hairstyles that put a strip of hair down between the eyebrows obscures a central point that the AI uses to measure other facial features, which will cause the AI to not recognize a face. Additionally, using contrasting makeup like black and white applied in geometric shapes confuses the AI and again gets the program to drop off and not recognize a face (for pictures see cvdazzle.com). Another technique uses faces printed on clothing that draw the attention of the facial recognition software away from the face of the person wearing the garment. A creepy solution uses a prosthetic, very lifelike face mask of the privacy activist Leo Selvaggio called URME. The mask misleads the AI facial recognition tools to think that you are Leo Selvaggio. However, because masks are illegal in some places, researchers Isao Echizen, Associate Professor at Tokyo's National Institute of Informatics and Prof. Seiichi Gohshi of Kogakuin University have developed glasses with tiny lights that shine at a frequency that honey bees and digital cameras can see but people cannot. The infrared light creates a glare for digital cameras that obscures the face allowing the wearer to pass undetected by facial recognition systems.

Humans seem to have an almost infinite capacity for adaptation. We live in wildly diverse environments from extreme cold to roasting heat and will even travel beyond our own world into space, to the moon and maybe even Mars one day. In more and more countries a new environmental state continues to grow, namely a surveillance environment. Constant surveilance erodes our sense of privacy. Not everyone appears to be calmly adapting to this new environment. Researchers and designers are producing products that fool or confuse facial recognition tools affording people the ability to move around in public and still feel a sense of privacy. Some of the solutions may look strange today, but if people get tired of the constant surveillance environment the privacy solutions may be the fashion of tomorrow.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.