Saturday, March 04, 2006

The politics of dancing: 2006

Now there's a phrase from the 90s. Remember Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Act? Road protests? Setting Sun? Well, if you do you probably, like me, can't imagine how it came to this. It seems you are these days more likely to be the target of biometric surveillance if you are in a nightclub than anywhere else. This blog has charted this grim trend for some time, watching it spread from Barcelona to Glasgow and California. Being on the RFID guest list is bad enough - after all, it means you can be identified and tracked at any time without your knowledge.

But this kicks it up a notch. Someone is marketing a face recognition system for CCTV cameras called "BioBouncer." The pitch is that the machine will automatically recognise previous troublemakers and therefore permit them to be eighty-sixed without further drama. Funny, as a lad back in Leeds I remember there was something like that–it even threw them out too, and could (under ideal conditions) adapt its reactions to their mood, behaviour and degree of inebriation. It was called a bouncer.

Now, it was certainly far from ideal, but it sounds cheaper and less prone to errors. You may recall the Home Office's flawed ID card trial of 10,000 volunteers. On that occasion, digital fingerprinting, iris scanning and face recognition were tested. The results were dire. Iris scanning, the least hopeless of the three, failed 4 per cent of the time–enough to render any system based on it useless in a population of 44 million–but face recognition was useless to the point of absurdity, failing 30 per cent of the time.

That was under lab conditions, too. In the, ahem, field I would think results would be considerably worse. (After all, a non-trivial proportion of targets will have pupils the size of dinner plates...) The whole dire tale illustrates a couple of points about bad technology. The first is the speed of function creep. From the Barcelona club that allowed members to pay for drinks by RFID, we've already reached an application explicitly intended for control. The second is that you must beware the cool. (I think it's customary to link to this cartoon at Phil Hunt's at this point.) Is it too crazed to suggest someone's trying to manipulate people's associations? Probably, but a spoonful of novelty and insider cachet always goes a long way.

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