You Cannot Encrypt Your Face

Hussein Malla/AP

Democracy may be impossible in a world where no dissent is anonymous.

The night of December 16, 1773, dozens of Massachusetts colonists quietly boarded three ships and dumped what would now be close to $1 million worth of British tea into Boston Harbor.

The Sons of Liberty painted their faces and dressed like Native Americans. They barely spoke, to avoid revealing their identities. “There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself,” one of them wrote. It worked. Only a single person was caught.

What if the British had access to modern surveillance technology? What if they’d had access to face recognition?

From the Boston Tea Party to the printing of Common Sense, the ability to dissent—and to do it anonymously—was central to the founding of the United States. Anonymity was no luxury: It was a crime to advocate separation from the British Crown. It was a crime to dump British tea into Boston harbor. This trend persists. Our history is replete with moments when it was a “crime” to do the right thing, and legal to inflict injustice.

The latest crime-fighting tools, however, may eliminate people’s ability to be anonymous. Historically, surveillance technology has tracked our technology: our cars, our computers, our phones. Face recognition technology tracks our bodies. And unlike fingerprinting or DNA analysis, face recognition is designed to identify us from far away and in secret.

Face recognition is not just about finding terrorists. It’s about finding citizens. As a result of simply having a driver’s license, over half of all American adults are enrolled in a criminal face recognition network. While the details are murky, it appears that Baltimore County police used face recognition to identify people protesting the death of Freddie Gray.

As law enforcement develops increasingly powerful surveillance tools, we need to ask ourselves: Are we building a world where no dissent is anonymous? A world where the Sons of Liberty are each arraigned as British tea still floats in Boston harbor?

The answer to these questions has to be “no.” In the midst of a heated debate about encryption and the need for privacy and security in our communications, it’s tempting to think that the solutions to these problems will originate in Silicon Valley. They won’t. You can encrypt your hard drive. You can encrypt your emails and texts. You cannot encrypt your face.

There may be technical means to avoid face recognition. Coincidentally, one of them echoes the face paint worn by the Sons of Liberty. But face recognition’s threat to freedom will not be addressed through a simple change in default settings. It will be addressed only through hard conversations, and legislation, in Congress and state legislatures.

“Writing and talk do not prove me,” wrote Walt Whitman in his Song of Myself. “I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face.” We have grown accustomed to the monitoring of our technology and communications. There is something different, something intractable and ominous, about the tracking of our bodies.

This article is part of a collaboration with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.