Automatic facial recognition (AFR) is hitting the headlines in the UK because of questions about its use in society. AFR is part of a wider drive worldwide, for surveillance and its associated big data to assist policing and to support security. It is a form of border-making. It is invisible, and its impacts are unknown. Yes, it may assist in catching suspected criminals, but what are the insidious affects on the wider public and their sense of autonomy and freedom to act.

Specifically I’m interested in how the use of AFR in public areas where protests happen, affect the viability of those protests. How the threat of being recorded, your intimate facial biometric details captured, would affect your choice to be part of a protest. Yes, the integral part of being at a protest is to be counted – one of many with a message to be heard. But, there is a difference between being present through choice, and being ‘captured’ by AFR – in this ‘capture’ without consent, there is a power imbalance. A power imbalance which is heightened by a current lack of transparency. My argument is that the use of AFR in public areas creates an implicit power imbalance that is threatening – and to be threatened, is to be coerced – your behaviour altered through fear.

Through this commission with the University of Exeter I will work with academic researchers and people who have protested to produce co-produced portraits that through their process and outcome explore questions around the use of AFR.

 


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Yesterday I met with one of the founders of a Cornwall-based company “TouchByte” who sell and deliver facial recognition applications for a wide range of purposes.

Jeremy Sneller was very open to meeting with me, and he was friendly and ready for a chat – ready to try and convince me of the benefits of facial recognition technologies. I was grateful for his openness and for his time.

Personally I am uncomfortable with technologies that track me. But they are ubiquitous and gradually I succumb to more as I weigh up the choice between convenience and ‘privacy’. (Privacy is in quote marks as I realise I don’t know what real level of privacy I have or I can expect.) I haven’t yet, for example, enabled the fingerprint access on my iPhone, but I did give my fingerprint data to Disneyworld (and USA Border Control). I have disabled the Location permission on my phone apps, but I do miss out on traffic alerts. Often I mindlessly accept cookies, but I do have the ‘Terms of Service-Didn’t Read‘ widget on my internet browser. I do have my internet browser set to ‘Duckduckgo’ so that my browsing isn’t recorded, but occasionally I still go to a google search page for better results. I’ve retained my google mail and calendar, but I rarely use the google drive or store my photos in the cloud. What do these decisions actually give me? A misinformed or skewed view that I am less trackable?

How will I respond to facial recognition technologies becoming convenient means in my daily life? Will I eventually mindlessly use my face as the key to my car, the hotel, to my workplace? For this is the vision of the future frictionless society.

What I have learnt and understood is that my image can not be recorded and saved without my permission. There are single-visit anonymous category whereby my facial data is deleted directly after use. And there is multi-visit category where I would need to give permission for my facial data to be kept on a database.

An exciting potential outcome from the meeting is that they are open to me coming to play with their technology, possibly testing the final placard portraits and gaining further insight into how they work. I look forward to that!

 

 


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Over many years I’ve been considering through my practice what part art can play in contributing to positive social change. Alongside this question, I have also been asking what forms activism takes.

Traditionally activism is outward, energetic. At the public gathering or protest there is noise, it could be shouting or singing, there are placards with text and images. All to draw attention to a certain issue and to draw attention to the bodies gathered together. There is a power in numbers and that is undeniable. But what if you naturally shy away from the focus and feel discomfort with drawing attention to yourself. What if you feel that to be confrontational is to be antagonistic and therefore potentially alienating your ‘audience’. What other ways are there to be ‘active’?

Today I met with one of the co-producer/participants. She has been protesting since the 1960s. In the early days her protests were for CND/anti nuclear and anti-apartheid campaigns. As I took photos of her for this commission-project, she spoke to me about how her feeling about public protest has changed over the years. How as a young woman she felt strong and unafraid of the consequences, how she could physically run or fight back. Now, she doesn’t want to place herself where she could be vulnerable to potential aggression and she doesn’t feel comfortable putting herself and her body into public standing or confrontation.

What other forms of protest are there? This talk by Sarah Corbett for TEDX [email protected] speaks about the introvert’s activism. She speaks of the promise of activating through creative gifts, that engage their policy-changer recipient by catching them off-guard through their beautiful, heartfelt generosity.

Last year in June 2018 there were the Trump protests. I wanted to take part and to make a placard. I began a placard that took several months to make. I still haven’t quite finished it but its almost ready to be used. And I feel now it’s a placard for every gathering or protest. It’s a scarf embroidered with text by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nan Han. The words are about the value of listening deeply and its potential for healing. I feel strongly that listening truly is the key to reconciliation.

The classic example of yang-protest versus yin-protest is that of the suffragettes and the suffragists. Since the 2018 centenary celebrations of the 1918 Representation of the People Act and the unveiling of the statue of Millicent Fawcett (leader of the Suffragists) in London’s Parliament Square there is more collective knowledge of the role the suffragists played. We understand that women’s voting rights happened due to a combination of the long-lived quieter lobbying of the suffragists together with the attention-grabbing actions of the suffragettes.

We need all forms of activism. And that activism needs to come forward in a way that makes sense for that individual according to their circumstances and character.


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Here’s the plan for what I’ll be making for the commission. It’s emerged quite slowly. I’m generally surprised at the amount of time it takes me to develop work. I spend equal amounts of thinking and making. My process is a loopback between visual exploration of materials and mark making and returning to the question and what it is I want to convey. I don’t expect the viewer to be presented with a message, however it has to be what I want to communicate – how and whether this is received is another question.

I am working with five people who are protesters. I want to convey a breadth of reasons that people stand up in public to protest. These maybe school funding cuts, Brexit, Trump visit, climate emergency, women’s refuge closure, nuclear disarmament, Iraq war…

Each person can be involved as much or a little as they like, or as life allows. I have a consent form which states they will remain anonymous although the nature of the portrait may mean they are visually identifiable. The form states that they can withdraw their participation at any time – although if images of the made work have already gone online I am limited in removing all the links to the work. The form also states where their photographs are kept (non networked encrypted computer) and that they will be deleted after use.

I begin by taking a sequence of photographs of their head and shoulders. I say to them that they can be creating a movement which may say something they want to express, or it can be quite arbitrary.

A sequence of photographs are printed onto transparencies which are used to prepare a series of screens for screen printing. At this point they can get involved in choosing the sequence, and in the printing, if they like.

The screen printed images can be in different colours. They will be printed onto a lightweight Japanese (Kozo) paper. The paper is translucent when held up to the light, but despite its seeming fragility, it is quite strong.

The screen printed portraits will be selected, played with, and then layered and glued together. Again, they can be involved, or lead on this, if they like.

These portrait-placards will be taken into the public space where the they have protested and photographed with the placards held in front of their face. I hope that the light shining through the placard will create a liminal portrait.

The final work is both the portrait-placards and the photographs. The titles of the work will be each person’s protests (they could be long titles!). I hope to also include an audio piece featuring an expert on the human rights issues around facial recognition and a facial technology business developer.

NB. I will be paying for assistance from skilled and talented people for the screen printing (George Barron at Double Elephant Print Workshop), gluing paper (Alysa Freeman, recycled paper jeweller) and for the photography.


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“Our vision of the future is a FRICTIONLESS SOCIETY – where your face is your secure method of triggering other multiple day to day events. There will be no requirement for keys to enter your house, space facility or car, no cash or credit cards necessary to pay for goods, no tickets needed to travel on trains, buses or planes, and no passwords or signatures required to validate who you are – just your FACE!”

I’m trying to pinpoint the reason for my automatic unease when I read this statement. Is it the natural kickback to a new technology that promotes convenience, such as my mild scepticism when I could ‘tap’ for purchases under £30, or is it something more?

Our face as a tool. It just doesn’t seem so simple. Our faces change through our lives. We age. And, on a day to day basis I’m sure I look different depending on my emotional barometer. Would it require us to always look the same, to remain ageless, to wear a ‘face’ of makeup that holds the key to our identity?

We say that the eyes are the window to the soul. When we look at a close friend to see how they really are, to see what’s really going on, what they’re not saying, it is their face we observe. Their body language may hold further clues, but these signals sit alongside their facial expressions.

Our faces are intimate parts of us. Looked at closely, they ‘talk’ to us about what that person is feeling and thinking. This is unlike any other part of our body.

Will using our faces as a tool to ease our daily lives, as data multiplied across corporate databases, render this intimate part of us one-dimensional and deplete a little bit of our soul?

 


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Reading today about the case of Ivan Golunov, the investigative journalist who was falsely arrested (and has now, remarkably, been released and cleared of all charges), I find out that in Russia only single-picket protest is allowed.

Imagine that. No gathering or assembly. No Extinction Rebellion, no Reclaim the Night, no protest against education spending cuts.

In Russia protesters must stand at least 165 feet apart to qualify as a single-picket protest, or risk arrest.

On June 7th, the day after Ivan Golunov’s arrest, people queued to have their turn to protest against his arrest and imprisonment. There is more information and remarkable photos in this article by the newspaper Golunov works for. https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/06/08/you-can-t-be-proud-of-a-country-where-this-happens

In the UK we have:

  • the right to freedom of assembly
  • freedom of thought, belief and religion
  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of association
  • protection from discrimination in respect of those rights and freedoms

These are in our Human Rights Act 1998 as enshrined in the ECHR European Convention on Human Rights.

Protesters also have protection from a legal framework: Data Protection Act 2018, Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. And, it is by virtue of Section 34 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 that there has been a Surveillance Camera Commissioner was appointed. More about the Surveillance Camera Commissioner role in the next post.


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