“We are transforming the world to an increasingly positive world,” says a promotional video for the March 2019 South by Southwest conference (SXSW). The Austin symposium hosts a variety of creative events, including film festivals, music festivals, speeches, and trade shows for up-and-coming products. Seen as one of America’s premier creative events, it attracts Hollywood stars, politicians, inventers, and a who’s who of those who wish to be seen. What better place to premier a technology that may change the world – with serious implications for personal privacy and surveillance? If you get the glitterati on board, their fans are sure to follow.
Biometrics is a rapidly developing field that can be used to identify individuals by measuring and storing unique biological data such as fingerprints, facial features, DNA, hand geometry, and eye information such as the iris and retina. One computing company recently announced that it would exhibit its new iris scanning software in the SXSW trade show in the form of an art installation that celebrates the uniqueness of individual human biological differences. It would seem there’s no better way to market corporate surveillance of the masses than a display that promotes “diversity.”
We have seen iris scanning technology in hundreds of movies that depict futuristic or high-security scenarios, but it is now coming into the mainstream and may very well affect our daily lives in the near future. The New York City police department was one of the first to incorporate the technology in the portable Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS), which scans the faces and eyes of people on the streets. The FBI is also researching iris scanning as part of its Next Generation Identification program, in the hopes of creating a “national iris repository.”
But if corporations and the government suddenly start invading peoples’ privacy, the public is likely to object; rather, they need to accept and use the technology first. Madison Square Garden recently announced it would install biometric scanners so that people can gain “frictionless” access to the venue’s events, without having to queue up for entry. Samsung’s latest smartphones, the S8, Note8, and S9, contain iris scanning software as well as other biometric features, including fingerprint and facial recognition. On its website, the company even manages to frame these elements as working to boost user privacy:
“We care deeply about your privacy. So we put in place effective mechanisms that prevent unwanted snooping, while making it surprisingly convenient for you. There’s iris scanning for airtight security, face recognition for unlocking your phone right away, and defense-grade security that stands guard around the clock.”
Back to SXSW and iris scanning being sold as not just great for personal security, but also a work of artistic beauty. NEC Corporation is a multinational Japanese IT and network technology company that provides “solutions for society” under the corporate message “orchestrating a brighter world.” It recently announced that it would have a kiosk featuring samples of traditional Japanese crafts and modern day manufacturing. And, of course, iris-scanning technology that will take pictures of participants’ eyes and display the data it collects in a visually-appealing projection image. It’s not clear whether that information will be kept for later use, but it is clear how the company hopes to convince people to willingly give it over – by appealing to the audience with words like “individuality”:
NEC will host an innovative exhibit, “CODE,” that converts the unique biometric information obtained from the iris of a person’s eye into graphic patterns. The expression of these patterns is different for each person, and represents the individuality and diversity that people naturally possess, as well as the beauty of these differences and the potential of biological information.
Tracking You at SXSW
Other gems to be found in the trade show are the stalls of defense contractor Lockheed Martin and surveillance superstars the CIA and Tencent. Foursquare, a company Wired.com describes as a “location-data giant” is also featuring at SXSW, to test Hypertrending, a piece of tracking software that can show in real time where clusters of people are located by using their phone information. Company co-founder Dennis Crowley said the purpose of the test was to gauge user reaction:
“I don’t know how people will react to seeing a heat map in real time of where all the phones are. I can imagine some people would be like, ‘That’s the coolest thing!’ And I can imagine some people would be like, ‘That’s the creepiest thing!’ … I want to get a read on how people feel about that in general. Are they into this? Are they curious? Do they want to see what’s next? Or are they like, ‘Hell no. They need to step away from this’?”
Good question, Crowley.
Over the past decade, what has been more hip than Facebook? What is cooler than Snapchat? Young professionals in Sweden are holding parties to get microchipped – one laughing partier declared “I want to be part of the future,” when she was implanted. New things naturally attract open, curious people and surveillance is being marketed to those most likely to make it trendy. But, as we have seen with social media data collection, the drawbacks of a trend may not be felt until it is too late.