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"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -Aldous Huxley

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wThursday, August 28, 2003


MACHINE IN THE COG: I thought the Canada-bans-smiling-on-passport-photos story was just funny and stupid, but Kevin Steel actually found an interesting twist. Turns out, the reason for the ban is that smiling can throw off facial recognition devices, so, well, take it away Steel:

Before you think I'm about to go on some civil liberties rant, let me say I don't necessarily object to the idea of face scanners. I mean, isn't that what airport security people do? Scan faces with their eyes? What I do find sort of kooky is the notion, implied by this story, that if you smile, your face suddenly is so altered, so changed that you become unrecognizable to the machine or, by extension, to even airport security officers; like the Cheshire Cat, the "real you" just disappears behind your beaming grin. ...

But don't smile too much. Our computers and our security officers just can't handle it. Suddenly I understand why the authorities are having such a devil of a time capturing the likes of Osama bin Laden.

He probably just smiles when he goes out shopping and gosh! who the heck would recognize him then?

Uh, I think you people working on that fancy-assed face recognition software had better do a little recall and polish up your product before you go flogging it to obviously overly-enthusiastic airport security mandarins.

For some reason or other, I don't think they will. Instead, the bureaucrats are asking us to conform to the machine.

As I wrote last April, civil libertarians who objected to facial recognition technology (FRT) on purely pragmatic grounds were standing on a very shaky foundation. It was one thing to dismiss FRT, as it existed then, as "science fiction," as ACLU attorney Jay Stanley did when I questioned him via e-mail. But technology almost never works when it's unveiled (think of an early version of virtually any Microsoft product). It's the many failures and corrections over time that turn wacky ideas into practical realities. And it looks like the Canadians may have found a way to make it work: ban smiling.

What will the pragmatic guardians of our liberties do now, object to the dour photos because they limit freedom of expression? Somehow, I very much doubt any judge or jury would swallow that argument.



posted by Jeremy at 1:53 AM