17-year-old Justin Wight didn’t think much about the first time he used his face to buy something.
It seemed super convenient. And well… cool.
“Wanna sign up for smart-face tech?” The cashier asked him as she rang him up at the grocery store. “It’ll save you having to swipe or tap your card.”
The process took less than five minutes. After taking his photo, the nice woman uploaded his image to the same rewards account he already used for coupons and savings due to his purchases.
Next time Justin dropped by the store with his buddies for a coke and snacks, he impressed them all with his high-tech checkout.
“Whoa. You just walked through the line.” one said.
“Yep. No need to wait around. It charges me automatically.”
Small but not insignificant, this experience served as a gateway for more expectations of convenience in the coming years. No need to press buttons at the gas station self-pay. In the dead of winter, Justin could stay in his warm car after showing his handsome mug to the digital display. Then the smart hose would automatically connect to his car’s tank, filling it for him.
Likewise, whenever Justin attended concerts, he never bothered bringing ID or money. Like many other young people, his identity and bank account were connected to the cloud, enabling him to come and go with ease.
That is, until he missed an important payment. Now 22 and recently graduated, Justin had been making good money as an assistant operations manager at an online perception company.
But then the economy suffered a downturn and Justin’s salary collapsed to subsistence levels. After covering rent and groceries, precious little was left to pay down his student loan. Justin alerted his lender of the situation, but it didn’t change the reality he was in default.
Justin learned this the hard way the next time he tried to buy something at the same grocery store he first set up his smart-face tech.
“Account suspended,” announced the store’s robotic voice, stopping Justin at the checkout.
Mortified by stares from fellow shoppers, he approached a nearby clerk who told him his account had been flagged due to “unresolved credit activity.”
The clerk directed him to the agreement Justin entered into five years ago. Buried in the legalese was this ominous passage: “We collect data from various sources reflecting our customers’ credit history. We reserve the right to restrict payment processing should we detect abnormalities in their profile.”
Put simply, Justin had just been locked out of economic activity.
This soon became apparent the next time he tried to charge his newly purchased electric vehicle.
“Access denied,” he was informed.
The same thing happened at other stores, restaurants, even his gym. Within days, he received notice from his landlord that he must pay the next six months’ rent in advance due to “changes in his credit profile.”
Facial recognition tech, something that began as a convenience, had become a nightmare for Justin. One he didn’t know how to escape.
In August, Mercedes-Benz Stadium announced plans to rollout technology permitting Falcons and Atlanta United fans to come and go using their faces. According to Sports Business Journal, “Tens of thousands of Falcons and Atlanta United fans eventually ‘may opt to enter the stadium via facial recognition or another form of biometrical authentication.’ The same technology someday may allow fans to be ‘recognized and automatically billed for purchases at the stadium’s bars, restaurants and concession stands.’”
What could possibly go wrong here?
This is the topic that political commentator Jimmy Dore recently brought up on his show. “No one can think one half a step ahead?” he asked rhetorically. “You know that they could also exclude you with your facial recognition? Did you ever think about that? Did you know they could deny you access to places? Did you also know they could track you?”
Unfortunately, many people, especially the young, are being conditioned to favor convenience over privacy. As a Works in Progress study reports: “A vast array of information communication technologies (ICTs) permeate public-private boundaries in home and school environments (Livingstone, 2005; Taylor & Rooney, 2016), creating a perfect storm in early adolescence, when burgeoning needs for autonomy, exploration, self-expression, and peer connectedness make youth easy targets for ‘dataveillance.’”
Will this trend manifest itself in an updated version of the scheme whereby credit card companies once targeted teens with credit card offers? That could very well happen. Or worse.
Right now, some (naïve) people are lauding Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s announcement as a boon for convenience, saving us a few seconds when entering or leaving. But we shouldn’t give up our privacy and/or our data sovereignty so easily. Today, businesses use this information for so-called expedience. Tomorrow, it could just as easily be weaponized against us.
For proof, think back to the 2019 Hong Kong protests when Mainland China used facial recognition tech to expose the protestors, leading to arrests and imprisonment. The next year, facial recognition was used against people in the U.S. fighting social justice issues.
As Business and Human Rights Resource Centre reports:
These technologies are also being used by law enforcement at racial justice protests all over the US and while facial recognition tech may have improved significantly over the last few years, police are still relying on after-the-fact systems. This means that footage recorded from CCTV cameras and other sources at protests is used to identify and then arrest protestors after the event is over, with their images then being matched against their mugshot databases.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this can lead: Locking people out of society for their economic and/or political choices, no matter their age, race, class, or leanings on any number of issues. This is the argument we make in our upcoming book Neuromined: Triumphing over Technological Tyranny (Fast Company Press 2023).
Though this is fiction, what happened to Justin may soon be our future if we don’t halt this “convenient” practice. Fortunately, San Francisco can show us the way. The same year as the Hong Kong protests, the city banned all usage of this invasive tech to protect its citizens. More people must wake up to this growing threat to prevent its widespread acceptance.
Otherwise, we’re walking into techno-tyranny we can scarcely imagine.
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