I Blew Right Through My Own Holiday

I declared June 10 to be “facial recognition” day, and this year I didn’t do a posting about it.

Governments have spent millions and billions on facial recognition technology, and now – in a delicious irony – most city-dwellers are wearing masks. This sort of thing (from my 2017 facial recognition day posting) is no longer necessary: [stderr] [stderr]

self-portrait 2017

Back in 1999, I think it was, I attended my father’s farewell lecture at JHU. He appeared to be meandering a bit (a Ranum family trait, apparently) and started discussing a Paris police chief who had developed a facial cataloguing system with cross-indexed cards and multiple access paths – a police officer could go “Looking for an old lady with gray hair and a mole” and it would index to a page of all the (allegedly) moley old women in each arondissiment of Paris. As he continued, I finally got it: he had identified the beginning of the police state’s use of automation. They are still at it, and not much more successful (though they are spending a lot of money!)


Mask by the amazing kestrel.

It hides the stubble and my iPhone’s face recognition hates it.

Want a scary thought? My iPhone almost certainly syncs the template generated for recognizing my face up to somewhere in iCloud. Now, that’s not a super-precise template that would allow a software system to pick me out of billions of people – it only has to be good enough to identify me 90-95% of the time. But if some government agency had access to the iCloud facial recognition templates, they could use the other information iPhone have to pretty accurately map the user to the template, and apply the template to arbitrary photographs. See where I am going with this? Anyone on a terrorism watch-list could be mapped to a unique device, validated, then tracked as the cell phone moves around even if they had a “burner” phone if they were foolish enough to use a phone that has facial recognition. My burner phone is a super dumb multi-SIMcard thing I bought in Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t even have a camera that I am aware of.

Now I am wondering if I should re-train my iPhone’s facial recognition to think that I am The Fonz.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Any white person on a terrorism watch-list could be mapped to a unique device

    FIFY. Not wishing to stereotype (but I’m gonna)… Until facial recognition gets really, really good at distinguishing between bearded non-white faces (i.e. better than most humans can do it), this is mainly a problem for white people and the hundreds, thousands, or likely hundreds of thousands of false positives.

  2. kestrel says

    You are rocking that “screw you facial recognition software” mask! My phone hates my mask, too. Too bad, iphone.

    If you pointed out to all the conspiracy theorists that wearing a mask makes it nearly impossible for “THEM” to track you, they’d probably all start wearing masks. You might need to make the reasoning a bit more convoluted however. This might be a little too straight-forward for them.

  3. says

    Most countries are still on 2G, so using old phones (e.g. Nokia 3310) without GPS is an option. Taiwan has forced everyone to 4G and smartphones, so tracking people here would be easy if it were an oppressive regime like China. 4G phones were how the government tracked people with COVID-19.

    When two drug dealers in Taiwan hatched their ill thought out murder plan two years ago, they used their 4G cell phones to communicate and YouBikes as get away vehicles. (The YouBike registration system requires government ID and records every time you use it.) Between that and their willingness to walk where there were surveillance cameras, they made it easy for the cops to ID and capture them. Those were store and ATM cameras, not government and police camera like the UK and PRC have.

    They didn’t just leave a trail of data, they left a furrow. I’m no criminal genius and I would have planned it better than they did (e.g. buy cheap bikes to throw away, used walkie talkies, used the 30km long unlit riverside public park to avoid surveillance, etc.). The cops tracked them after the crime was discovered, it was not a dictatorial government with people under regular surveillance in advance. In a police state, it’s likely they would already be under watch.

  4. says

    I vaguely remember hearing that some new phones have face recognition software, but I must have missed it becoming common. As always, I am way behind the times. And my phone is only a 2013 model, a friend of mine still uses an about 15 years old phone.

    Somehow I’m getting a feeling that I won’t be willing to update my current phone with anything newer. Why would anybody want to own a phone with face recognition software among its other flaws? Then again, my interest in new phones was gone already back when manufacturers removed MicroSD cards.

  5. John Morales says


    Somehow I’m getting a feeling that I won’t be willing to update my current phone with anything newer.

    Alas, things change around us.
    Back in the day (around 1990) I had one of the first mobile phones (the size, shape and weight of a brick) for work purposes. When I was done with that job, I did not have another until 2016, and even then it was a dumb phone (one of the very last) and only in case of emergencies. The only person with that number was my wife.

    This year, in April, I finally accepted that living life without a smartphone is just too much hassle. From toll booths to library access to government site access, they have become needful. Best I can do is not to give it out, and to have it turned off unless and until I need it. The rest of the time, I use my home line — and even that is now VOIP since the copper network was repurposed.

  6. says

    I still have a flip phone, never found a pressing need for a smart phone. Recently I discovered that 4G flip phones now exist (Aspera brand), I’ll probably get one when the current phone dies.

  7. dangerousbeans says

    it only has to be good enough to identify me 90-95% of the time.

    That’s the accuracy government works to anyway, and they won’t care if you’re one of the 5-10% and they arrest you wrongly. Especially if you’re not white and rich

    on these topics, it’s also worth remembering that gaps in data can be as useful as data. ‘oh, that house doesn’t have someone with a phone go into it regularly, but has electricity and water bills. must be [bullshit justification], lets raid it’

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