Some machines know far too much about us. And if they can also recognise us, there will be nowhere left to hide. “Ah! You have something to hide then!” Well, no, it’s just that experience has taught us that the information about us and the data we produce can be used for purposes we do not understand, that we do not want. This is what mass profiling is for: to make us docile consumers, individuals to be persuaded and manipulated in political and commercial campaigns, subjects to be monitored on the straight and narrow path of the majority.
However, machines do not exercise their power over everyone in the same way. What if these machines were used to persecute those heretic, irreverent, dissident people who represent the critical conscience of our age? This is a question we should all ask ourselves. Who has never been a heretic?
In the meantime, what happens when facial recognition devices control and regiment our living space — that of the squares, physical and virtual — the space of democracy? Have we ever wondered about that? Yet, this is what happens every day. In the Black Lives Matter rallies in America, in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, during street demonstrations in Russia and Belarus.
The risks for freedom
Still, machines make mistakes, and innocent people pay the price. The algorithms at the base of computer vision that are able to recognize a face starting from some nodal points allow A.I. systems to compare them with other faces to find the match, the exact match, and identify the subject caught by the smart cameras. A Big Brother scenario that has sparked protests and opposition. Especially because machines, instructed by humans, produce biases, systematic errors that confuse male faces with female faces, that mistake human faces for animal faces, and can be fooled by malicious people. This has already happened.
That’s why companies like Amazon have pulled facial recognition Apps used by some police forces from the market. Thus, face recognition can fail. And what about emotion recognition? The surveillance industry claims to use “intuitive machines” that can recognize basic emotions: anger and fear, sadness and joy, surprise and anticipation, disgust and acceptance. Perhaps even aggressiveness, hatred, pain, even curiosity.
In China, they use intelligent cameras when questioning the Uighur minority, as if they were modern lie detectors to discover the presumed guilt of individuals first arrested, then brought to the barracks, handcuffed, questioned: what is the margin of error? And, once an error is acknowledged, whose fault is it? Who pays for it?
In Europe, a large movement has spread to oppose the installation of surveillance cameras based on facial recognition as an infringement of constitutionally recognised rights. It is called Reclaim Your Face, and it is not the only one. The reason is simple to understand: the individual under surveillance does not behave spontaneously, chooses self-censorship and preventive conformism instead of free expression of words, actions and emotions. Is this what we want?
A gallery of defenders of freedom
Gianluca Costantini, a multifaceted artist and activist, has created a gallery of faces, Constellation, on which he has imposed a facial recognition grid. These include the faces of Julian Assange, Greta Thunberg, Joshua Wong, Nadia Murad and others. At each apex of the grid there is a word that defines a character of the person portrayed, information such as name, origin, the reasons for her singularity as a heretic, outspoken and ostracised, in conflict with the values of the dominant culture — and therefore a symbol of freedom and light.
That information, together with the face, says everything and nothing about the person. They say enough for the repressive systems that oppose them, mock them and persecute them, but they say very little about their feelings, about the complexity of their human story, which represents, through similarities and differences, the existential condition of many others like them, in search of truth. Here is the message: let us protect the seekers of truth. Especially when it is an uncomfortable and difficult truth to accept.
Translations by Sarah Tuggey