What if…and “Drones That Can Follow Your Face”

Yesterday I posted about the concept of the surveillance state. Although this post will largely focus on a new technology for the War on Terror, the applications for the surveillance state should be clear. And creepy.

As described here on Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog, Progeny Systems Corporation recently won and Army contract to begin work on a drone-mounted “Long Range, Non-cooperative, Biometric Tagging, Tracking and Location” system. In the past, the military’s Tagging, Tracking, and Locating of enemies has relied on such tactics as planting transmitters, applying lingering scents, or creating thermal fingerprints. But such efforts can be detected, fade away, or become muddled in an urban environment. Instead, Progeny will focus on something more permanent: enemies’ faces.

Progeny has developed an algorithm that can build a 3D facial model based on a 2D photo. Progeny claims that its algorithm can be employed using current drones, including the hand-held Raven, and create a model regardless of pose, expression, or lighting–so long as the image has 50 pixels between the target’s eyes. Conveniently, this resolution is similar to that of a traditional photo. Of course, the model improves if the drone can take multiple photos. Once a model is created, the algorithm might only need 15-20 pixels to match a suspect to his model.

Progeny’s software will also examine other aspects, such as ethnicity, skin color, height, and weight. Using these aspects, Progeny can track a suspect from 750 feet away or more. But if it can get closer, Progeny’s software can even tell identical twins apart using such details as scars, marks, and tattoos.

If this wasn’t creepy enough, the article also mentions two companies, Charles River Analytics and Modus Operandi, Inc., that are working to model human behavior in the hopes of determining which individuals in a crowd bear the U.S. military or its objectives ill will using “‘probabilistic algorithms th[at] determine the likelihood of adversarial intent.'”

What if this technology becomes sufficiently advanced and becomes commonplace in the U.S.? For example, what if London’s CCTV system was adopted and Progeny’s software was installed? What if every time you entered a public place, when, where, who you were with, and what you did was recorded and analyzed (assuming sufficient computer power exists to complement the software)? What if your intent was being calculated constantly, and you could be arrested based on the prediction?

Would drug purchases need a private spot to take place? Would they take place through the mail instead? Would criminals start building tunnels? Would technology or clothing designed to defeat facial recognition be outlawed? Might people intentionally, and repeatedly, disfigure themselves to confuse the software?

What if the software was used not by some 1984-like government, but by businesses? What if stores were able to track how long you spent in their store, who you shopped with, what you shopped for, what items you looked at but didn’t buy, what other stores you visited that day? How would they react to your patterns? Would such tracking be worth it if you were able to have a perfectly tailored shopping experience (everyone gets their own personal shopper droid)? What if sales and coupons became personalized as well? To whom would businesses sell this information? How would the buyers use that information?

What do you think of this new technology? It’s certainly useful on the battlefield, but what sort of costs and benefits might it bring domestically?