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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This week I printed a series of photopolymers and monotypes onto a light weight Kozo paper. The plan was to layer up similar and the same images, but shifted, looking for the liminal portrait. A portrait that both ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’. And a process that I’ll use for this commission when I work with participant-protesters. Or should that be co-producers? (a question that nips me as I think/work is this difference between participant and co-producer).

Here’s some of the test results. I’ll use this blog post as the place to record my findings. It won’t be compelling reading, but a document to help me make decisions. The photos come in pairs to show both sides of the piece. They are essentially maquettes. That’s a toothpick, and I’m holding them up to the light against the window. The plan is to make placard-size portraits.

#1. Photopolymer made from two poses (from a doubled-up acetate print out.)

#2. Photopolymer made from four poses (from a acetate print out.)

#3. Photopolymer print and a monotype print. Same pose.

#4. Four monotype prints. Same pose.

I like #1 and #2. Both photographic. Both a sequence of poses. #2 is harder to photograph – its more subtle, more ‘liminal’.

On a bigger scale I think I would need to screenprint the photographic images rather than photopolymer (it gets too expensive at that scale) and screenprint would also allow me to use different colour. However I’m a fan of the misty-atmosphere of the photopolymer (that comes from the intaglio inking process), and I’m generally not keen on the screenprint aesthetic (a bit flat for me and not so satisfying to print). So we’ll see. Probably the next step is to trial it on the larger scale.


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For my Urgency Commission with the University of Exeter (UoE), I will be working with people who have been or are protesters. I am hoping some of them will be UoE staff and students. To reach people often takes a little while. In the meantime I have started to test the processes I may use to create the liminal portraits.

The intention is to involve the protester-participants in the making of their own liminal portrait, and in the process to explore and discuss AFR technologies and their potential impact on the right to protest.

In this way I need to find a process of making that can genuinely involve them, yet is steered by my plan for the final outcome. (I do not therefore call what I am doing ‘participatory art’ – I’m sure I’ll write on this later, or in a different blog, the difference between co-produced and participatory art)

Yesterday I made a whole load of monotype portraits, using a helpful volunteer as a test-subject. I will play with these in several ways, including as chine collé onto embossed prints.

The aim is to create a portrait that explores the liminality of our identity. I want to make a portrait that is both recognisable by the human eye and unrecognisable by AFR technologies.


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Panopticon .. that’s a new word for me. It is satisfying to say and particularly in the context of the area of automatic facial recognition (AFR), gratifying to learn about.

I was drawn to the Wikipedia page on the Panopticon by this article on Medium by a contributor Meltem Demirors.

The panoptican is a type of building and a form of control. Jeremy Bentham, a social theorist in the 18th century, came up with a design for a prison whereby all the inmates could be observed by a single watchman. As stated in the Wikipedia entry:

Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. Thus, they are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour.

The use of AFR is a form of panoptican. The threat of observation and monitoring is bound to influence how we regulate our behaviour. There are a multitude of protests happening right now – how will the increasing (and currently unregulated use) of AFR in public spaces impact on people’s desire to be counted in the future?

Demirors speaks of the necessary privacies that we should demand in the face of pervading surveillance.

These are:

  1. Privacy in Economic Interactions, meaning who we send money to, how, when, in what amount, and why is something we have a right to keep private to ourselves and the recipient
  2. Privacy in Movement, meaning we should be able to move about physical, digital, and virtual space with anonymity, and we should be able to enter and leave spaces, whether in real life or online, without giving out identifying information
  3. Privacy in Communications, meaning we should be able to conduct conversations with certainty that they will remain private, and that we should be able to abstract our identity from our communications both in the physical world and online

I would add a fourth perhaps.. Privacy in Protest, meaning we should be able to attend a gathering with like-minded others to raise awareness on a critical issue, and that we should be able to do this without fear of our biometric information (or our children’s or young people’s) being added to a database for purposes beyond our knowledge or control.

The protest, the peace gathering, the vigil, the action – all forms of action which are there to empower people to stand up and speak out on behalf of others, could be made impotent under the threat of surveillance and its unknown implications.


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This tweet generated over 200 replies … with a real split between those who will NEVER fly again and those who are either resigned to the intrinsic use of AFR technologies for travel or think the security afforded by the technologies is a good thing.

AFR technologies have been used in Canadian airports since 2017. Our EU biometric passports utilise AFR technology. These e-passports have a chip in them with the holder’s facial biometric. And, as I said in a previous post, research in to AFR began in the 1960s with the work of Woody Bledsoe, Helen Chan Wolf, and Charles Bisson.

Despite the seemingly unstoppable rollout of AFR for border security, what can be questioned is its use in public life. Should we have AFR in the high street or in hospitals? Should it be used at football games or at music concerts? It is already happening in some of these places. That is why Ed Bridges, represented by Liberty, is taking South Wales Police to court for their use of AFR in public spaces. ‘South Wales Police has used facial recognition in public spaces on at least 22 occasions since May 2017. Ed believes his face was scanned by South Wales Police at both a peaceful anti-arms protest and while doing his Christmas shopping.’ (Liberty website accessed 25-04-19).

Ed Bridges says:

“Without warning the police have used this invasive technology on peaceful protesters and thousands of people going about their daily business, providing no explanation of how it works and no opportunity for us to consent. The police’s indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology on our streets makes our privacy rights worthless and will force us all to alter our behaviour – it needs to be challenged and it needs to stop.”

The key here is that the indiscriminate use of AFR, without regulation or limits, will force us all to alter our behaviour. It thwarts our right to autonomous action and therefore, limits our individual and collective potential to envision and create a better future.

Postscript: That ‘final’ sentence clearly indicates my inherent bias and so in the interests of balance this is a link from digital security company Gemalto with an article published this month on the current trends in AFR (its a good read and worth going to) https://www.gemalto.com/govt/biometrics/facial-recognition.

BTW: many thanks to Dr Ian Cook who forwarded me the tweet. It provided many hours of onward links.


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I spent Tuesday morning making my face into its own dot-to-dot drawing.

Using this diagram as a guide (taken from the Wonderworks Museum information panel), I drew dots on my face that align with its form and structure. Places such as: REyebrowEnd, REyebrowMid, NoseBridge, LOrbitalUpper, LEar, LOrbitalLower, RJawEnd, RMidForehead… and so on. And, then I drew lines between the dots.

Despite feeling like I was getting ready for an off the wall Halloween party, this was a useful exercise.

The measuring and scanning and recording of our faces is an intimate activity. By spending about 30 minutes firstly drawing dots and then joining them together I spent more time looking at myself than in the past 10 years. (It is little embarrassing. But undoubtedly funny too.)

This dot-to-dot exercise emphasised to me what it means to have your face captured and scrutinised, and brought my head-space rational thinking into a bodily-felt emotion-inducing space.

 


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