Ubiquitous intrusion

There’s been a lot of talk over the past year or so regarding corporate monitoring of employee e-mail, web-browsing, and the like. I think these problems are very important, but they are beyond the scope of this discussion.

Technology is value-neutral. It can be used in good ways and evil. Likewise technologies in combination. I’ve been thinking about one particularly frightening combination of technologies that we may see all-too soon. All of the following exist right now or are in the pipeline:

What I am envisioning is that we will have glasses with unobtrusive–nearly invisible–webcams and HUD overlays. These will be connected to the Internet via some kind of souped-up cellphone/palmpilot doohickey of the future. When you see a face, you’ll be able to push a button (or speak a command, whatever) initiating the following events:

  1. Your webcam takes a picture of the person’s face
  2. That picture is transmitted via your wireless Internet connection to a face database
  3. If there is a match, information about that person is transmitted back to you
  4. That information is then displayed in your eyeglass HUD

In short, just by looking at a person, you might be able to learn his or her name, address, and other info. That’s bad enough, but it gets much, much worse. Technologically, it would be trivial to include a system that allowed people to post “reviews” of that person. In fact, all of the basic information, like name and address, could be gathered through volunteer members of the system, instead of commercial databases (which might well be unwilling to participate)–the Internet Movie Database is a volunteer effort, and an excellent (but benign) example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Third Voice caught a lot of flack for the original version of its software, which basically allowed anyone to write graffitti on other websites, viewable to other people with Third-Voice software. This resulted in a lot of snide comments being plastered over high-traffic sites like Yahoo. (Third Voice has evidently taken its software in a different direction.) Imagine this being done to your face, viewable to anyone with the right equipment. And of course, there’s no reason to expect the comments that others would make about you would be honest or accurate. Any stranger who sees you on the street would be able to contribute a comment about you. You could even add in GPS data, so that the central database could compile a running log of your whereabouts.

All the technology to accomplish this exists right now, although the setup would be ungainly and terribly expensive. I believe that in less than five years, the technology will be much smaller, more elegant, and more accessible.

There are lots of other interesting and scary variations on this. Stationary webcams are bound to proliferate, located at busy intersections and the like. Such a system as I am discussing could link in with those so, just possibly, you could see a snapshot of someone’s back while you look at their face. Or you could sit at home and tell the system to follow a certain person through town, with other stationary webcams (or perhaps even other person-mounted webcams) constantly looking for that person’s face and updating you on his progress.

I refer to this situation as “ubiquitous intrusiveness,” or more concisely, as “omnihell.” This is very different from the Big Brother worries we have regarding business and government today–it is a situation where everybody is conducting surveillance on everyone else. Will it actually happen? I’m tempted to think that if I can imagine it, someone else is already working on it. I fear the only thing standing in the way of making it happen is the Golden Rule–if you are snooping on others, you’ll likely be snooped on yourself. Perhaps, as a culture, we will feel a common sense of revulsion at the whole prospect and stand back.

I got to thinking about this, not as a way for people to swap notes on other people, but as a personal memory tool–my first thought was not that you’d share your face-database with others, but that you’d have sole access to it, so you’d never have the embarrassing experience of re-meeting people and forgetting their names. Then I realized the information could be shared, meaning it almost certainly would be, and then you’d get this scenario.


Evidently everyone entering the stadium to see the 2001 Superbowl was face-matched, in an effort to ferret out terrorists.

3 thoughts on “Ubiquitous intrusion”

  1. Adam,

    Your considerations of ?ubiquitous intrusiveness? are both intriguing and worth greater considerations as you describe a scenario that does seem in the pipeline.

    Still, I want to point out that technology is seldom, if *ever* “value-neutral.” Technology embodies an approach, a technique, and that approach consists of values. Technology developed by human beings is developed by human beings and inevitably contains biases of the human beings of its creators. All technologies can be used “for good” and “for evil”, but that does not mean that a given technology does not have values. Blogs value voice and utterances. Cameras value light and optics.

    The scenario you describe hinges more, I think, on the ability to ascertain third-pary created information on a stranger than the ability to call up reams of associative material for a recognized face. The latter is part of being human.

    I think Third Voice tells us a little bit about where this might go, namely, the third party postings too quickly degenerate into noise and are disregarded. Goggling and then googling me on the street, you are more likely to look to what Adina Levin says about me than another stranger.

  2. I’m not sure what you mean by “Cameras value light and optics.” A camera lacks judgment, so is incapable of valuing anything. A camera doesn’t care if it’s used in a completely dark room.

    Technologies may be created with certain uses in mind, and those uses may be good or evil, but, to steal a line from William Gibson, “the street finds its own use for things.”

    I’ll grant that Third Voice pretty much made itself irrelevant. But being able to Google every face you see on the street isn’t any less creepy.

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