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The Secret History of Facial Recognition


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A facial recogition system focusing on a face.

Today, facial recognition has become a security feature of choice for phones, laptops, passports, and payment apps. It promises to revolutionize the business of targeted advertising and speed the diagnosis of certain illnesses. It makes tagging friends on Instagram a breeze. Yet it is also, increasingly, a tool of state oppression and corporate surveillance.

Credit: Dan Winters

Woody Bledsoe was sitting in a wheelchair in his open garage, waiting. To anyone who had seen him even a few months earlier—anyone accustomed to greeting him on Sundays at the local Mormon church, or to spotting him around town on his jogs—the 74-year-old would have been all but unrecognizable. The healthy round cheeks he had maintained for much of his life were sunken. The degenerative disease ALS had taken away his ability to speak and walk, leaving him barely able to scratch out short messages on a portable whiteboard. But Woody's mind was still sharp. When his son Lance arrived at the house in Austin, Texas, that morning in early 1995, Woody immediately began to issue instructions in dry-erase ink.

He told Lance to fetch a trash can from the backyard—one of the old metal kinds that Oscar the Grouch lives in. Lance grabbed one and set it down near his father. Then Woody sent him into the house for matches and lighter fluid. When Lance got back, Woody motioned to two large file cabinets inside the garage.

They'd been around ever since Lance could remember. Now in his late thirties, Lance was pretty sure they hadn't been opened since he was a kid. And he knew they weren't regular file cabinets. They were the same kind he'd seen when he worked on sonar equipment for US nuclear submarines—fireproof and very heavy, with a strong combination lock on each drawer. His father slowly began writing numbers on the whiteboard, and to Lance's astonishment, the combination worked. "As I opened the first drawer," he tells me almost 25 years later, "I felt like Indiana Jones."

 

From Wired
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