tymshft

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The anonymity of the crowd – a new concept

In my day job, I spend a considerable amount of time monitoring public reaction to the use of biometric technologies. One subset of that is the reaction to the use of facial recognition in retail environments.

This Consumer Reports article provides an excellent introduction to the issues involved. I could say all sorts of things about the statements in the article – after all, this is my day job – but I will concentrate on one topic that would be interesting to the tymshft reader.

One can legitimately ask – what’s the difference between a bouncer staring out onto the street to look for known troublemakers, and a facial recognition camera doing the same thing? Some argue that there is a huge difference, because the camera and the software can do things that no mere human can do.

Here’s how the Consumer Reports article explained the power of the camera:

More importantly, facial recognition has the potential to erode the anonymity of the crowd, the specific type of privacy you experience when you stride through a public space, near home or on vacation, and refreshingly, no one knows your name. Marketers already can see every article we read online; do we need to let them record every shop window we gaze through?

The anonymity of the crowd. The freedom to walk through a city without having your every move be tracked. A freedom that has existed since the dawn of time.

Not.

During the Industrial Revolution, many people migrated to cities, and cities became larger and larger. The people who left villages where everyone knew their name found themselves in cities with tens of thousands of people or more – places where they truly could be anonymous. (As an aside, these new cities had to deal with crimes committed by unknown people, which caused a few people to develop ways to identify criminals by their physical characteristics – the ancestors to our facial recognition systems of today.)

But back in their home towns, there was no such anonymity. If Nigel was peering in a shopkeeper’s window, all of the neighbors knew about it. Even today, there are small towns in industrialized nations where everybody knows your name, and the concept of anonymity in the crowd simply does not exist.

Of course, society is always evolving, and perhaps the anonymity of the crowd is a good thing. But we have to remember that this is a relatively recent development.

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