Facial recognition: The other reason we may need a face mask

Facial recognition: The other reason we may need a face mask
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Don’t get out of the hard-learned habit of covering your face, even if you live in a place that will soon no longer require it. Long after the pandemic recedes, we may still need our N-95 respirators, surgical masks and DIY bandana coverings. Marking the triumph over COVID-19, when it finally happens, should not include a bonfire of masks. This symbol of the coronavirus fight may prove just as crucial against a different foe altogether.

Also spreading fast, but largely outside of global health debates and meaningful scrutiny, is facial recognition. We’ve had Apple’s handy Face ID since 2017, of course, with its 30,000 invisible facial dots that coalesce into a phone-unlocking faceprint, but potentially more perturbing applications are already here or around the corner. Face-Six wants to reduce medical errors and fraud by promising to help hospitals “identify patients whenever necessary, conscious or unconscious.” ISM Connect has scanned crowds at Taylor SwiftTaylor Alison SwiftStalker arrested trying to break into Taylor Swift's New York apartment Taylor Swift sends gifts to front-line nurse: 'I am so inspired by your passion for helping' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Supreme Court announces unanimous rulings MORE’s concerts to weed out stalkers and generate tour promotion metrics. Clearview AI has been used by over 600 law enforcement agencies to solve cases from shoplifting to murder. So private it listed a fake Manhattan address as its business location, Clearview AI sold a product that allows users to take a picture of someone they are curious about and obtain links to public photos and sites pertaining to this person.

The power that such apps must bestow is suggested in another purveyor’s name, iOmniscient. Its site boasts of clients in 60 countries and over 30 industries, including retail, where it measures customers’ footpaths, visit frequency and dwell time. iOmniscient “excels in uncontrolled environments with non-cooperative individuals,” which would explain its suspected use during Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. In response to the potential surveillance, demonstrators toppled smart lampposts believed to house the technology, destroyed CCTV cameras, hid themselves under umbrellas — and donned face masks.


Many uses of facial recognition can be defended on ethical grounds, but, together, they add up to a post-privacy world where the only way to maintain anonymity in the public sphere may soon be to cover one’s face.

Anonymity is only one part of privacy, though. Other components that have been described include reserve, or the choice of what personal information we disclose; isolation, or the use of distance to be out of reach; and selective intimacy, or the ability to be with one individual or group and not others.

One can see how the digital revolution has wreaked havoc with all the various “sub-privacies,” but — because it involves our faces — the assault on anonymity from facial recognition may be the most intrusive. If scientific evidence is needed that this can’t be good, it exists. Privacy, pre-facial recognition research shows, is essential to some important psychological milestones and needs, including the ability to achieve autonomy, the ability to recover from setbacks and the ability to contemplate. None of these can occur under a microscope.

A tagged, mapped, tracked, traced or otherwise surveilled individual is one who feels psychologically trapped, struggles to bounce back and has a hard time reflecting on the meaning of it all. So, along with the frustration we experience these days when a face mask gets in the way of unlocking our phones, we may want to contemplate (while we still can) the sad parallelism between two present dangers. We may also want to commit to fighting the abuse of our faces like our psychological life depended on it. Or like it was a dangerous virus.

Elias Aboujaoude is a psychiatry professor and writer at Stanford University. He is the author of “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality,” a New York Times Editor’s Choice.