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Biometric facial scanning
by jeremy, joseph, david & chad    Dec 3, 2001

Los Angeles is barely a handshake away from installing biometric facial scanners, similar to those used at last year's Super Bowl, in the Los Angeles airport. Other cities are taking the same steps. This is causing some discussion across the country, though (IMHO) not as much as it should. A few of us CSPers weigh in with our thoughts:

For the moment, I'm not too concerned. As long as this kind of technology is only employed in public arenas and is utilized solely to maintain safety and security, I'm not worried. The worst that would likely happen is some security guard might see me pick my nose, scratch my crotch, or stare down the shirt of some hottie. However, if the government starts moving further down the road of blanket phone taps and broader domestic spying powers (all in the name of rooting out terrorism, of course), we may as well move to China.

Some civil libertarians see any move by the government to better monitor the public as a slippery slope into an abyss of fascism. I generally don't buy into "slippery slope" arguments. I usually believe that there's always some middle ground on any issue. But while protests from civil libertarians are going largely unheeded these days (after all, when people are frightened, the instinct to survive supercedes the desire for freedom), I think we should all bear in mind Patrick Henry's famous rallying cry, "Give me liberty or give me death!" This should be our mantra (albeit a tad extreme) through this crisis. We must be vigilant against abuses of our civil rights. Otherwise, measures enacted to protect us from terror will accomplish exactly what our enemies want.

What can anyone say about it? It will happen; this use of biometrics will become an increasing part of our lives, and I imagine soon such technology will be employed at grocery stores, at traffic lights, movie theatres . . . I canít imagine that within 20 years we wonít have an infrastructure in place to track pretty much every person any place they care to go. In the wake of September 11, at least for the foreseeable future, who is going to stand up to these changes? Any outcry of protest is going to be met with the inevitable ďIf you donít have anything to hide, thereís no reason for you to be concerned about this.Ē And thatís going to shut a lot of people up. The liberal press has been largely supportive of any and all measures which might (the operative word) decrease the likelihood of a terrorist attack. And so we will continue to watch as technology encroaches upon our freedom in the name of preserving it. Thus, in the wake of September 11, the pendulum swings hard in the direction of more surveillance, more paranoia, more technology seeking to protect us from a nebulous evil Other. The question is whether the pendulum will ever swing back.

It's goofy, I know, and hardly to the point, but the first thing I think when I hear that LAX is a whisper away from installing biometric facial scanners at airport checkpoints is "that's damn cool." And, it is. I mean, we are talking here about machines that can look at your face, scan it, and check that scan against a huge database of facial scans, all in a matter of moments. Just a few years ago, this would have been the stuff of James Bond movies -- now it'll be as common and innocuous as airport baggage scanners. So, my geek side takes over, and again I think, "that's damn cool." And, I would be right, if I felt we could trust the scanners to be used in a purely responsible manner. If placed properly, and used by experienced, well-trained individuals without any agenda but the protection of the public, the inconvenience to us would be minimal, and the benefits large. The idea of facial scanning does not make me concerned for myself - I've done nothing wrong, and so most likely have nothing to fear.

But I do worry about how it will affect others, and how the government will leverage the data it gathers on us against our civil liberties. Unfortunately, with the government's recent attempts at the suppression of civil liberties (insistence upon military tribunals, even for citizens, eavesdropping on attorney/client conversations, etc.), I am more worried about the implications of such scanning than I might have been previously. Is data being collected? How long will that data be stored? Who will have access to it? What will be done with it? I tend to be largely trusting of our government (some would say, "naive"), but, after hearing Bush and Ashcroft over the last few weeks, even I am worried. It is hard to stand opposed to any new security measures right now, but we must keep an extremely critical eye toward our leadership, especially in times like these. Facial scanners are just tools, and they are no more insidious than the agendas of the people operating them. It is those agendas against which we should be on our guard.

Anytime I hear a phrase such as "biometric facial recognizers," I can't help but think of some stark futuristic world, something akin to GATTICA, "Harrison Bergeron," or 1984. But, then again, a social security number isn't much more than a human barcode. We are apt to grow accustomed to these things, if implemented in small enough measures. I'm just afraid of what it could develop into. A wall is built brick by brick.

Granted, if the recognizers had been implemented in New York before September 11, the tragedy may not have taken place. But could you have even imagined such a thing before that date?

In order to allow certain comforts, we must infringe on certain liberties. People kid themselves by thinking we live in a free democracy, but that notion is ludicrous. You can never have a truly free democracy. Our government is as close as it can get, but sheer size alone prevents it from ever being anything more than a restrictive republic. We don't even have much say in what it decides. We, individually, only have a small say in electing the officials that do, and as we found in the last Presidential election, even that process can be called into question. If the government doesn't do anything, people claim stoicism and ineffectiveness. If it exercises too much control in order to stop the bleeding, people claim socialism or fascism.

The need for national security is now at heights last seen during the Cold War. The CIA is back in full force and up to its old tricks. Personally, I don't like the idea of full-blown espionage, because that inherently implies spying on your own; but I do like the idea of boarding a plane again without the feeling that it may fly into the White House.

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