The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The End of Public Anonymity Is Close

So, you may have heard of Clearview:

The app, says the Times, works by comparing a photo to a database of more than three billion pictures that Clearview says it’s scraped off Facebook, Venmo, YouTube, and other sites. It then serves up matches, along with links to the sites where those database photos originally appeared.

Clearview is only for law enforcement for now, but this is the future. Facial recognition, combined with other metrics like gait analysis, means the end of public anonymity.

There’s a strand of thinking which claims that no one has an expectation of anonymity in public, but the loss of it will be catastrophic. If someone knows who you are, and where you are, they can easily stalk you or rob you when they know you aren’t at home. This sort of technology in the wild (and even in the hands of cops) will lead to rapes and assaults. “I like how she looks. I wonder who she is? Cool, now that I know it’s easy enough to find out where she works and lives.”

It will wind up in the wild. It’s not too far from a reverse image search to this, and the images required for the training are in the wild, as Clearview notes.

Add this to corporate and government databases, with real-time scraping of public phone data and heat maps of public travel become possible. Add it to financial information (every time you use your credit, debit, and charge cards) and even finer grade surveillance is possible. Add in GPS data and/or security cameras and where you are at all times of day will be known.

The potential for abuse by corporations is massive: They already attention farm us, using conditioning techniques to make us click and buy and spend hours a day on social media. (Yes, this is very effective conditioning.) The abuse by your boss, well, just hope you never do–or have never done–anything your boss doesn’t approve of. You ain’t seen cancel culture yet.

The potential political abuses are, I trust, obvious.

And then there is the potential for abuse by parents, who already obnoxiously track their kids in ways that would look ludicrous to previous generations of children and which have, among other things, shown up as a generational decline in creativity.

The larger issue is this: People who are constantly under surveillance become super-conformers out of defense. Without true private time, the public persona and the private personality tend to collapse together. You need a backstage — by yourself and with a small group of friends to become yourself. You need anonymity.

When everything you do is open to criticism by everyone, you will become timid and conforming.

When governments, corporations, schools, and parents know everything, they will try to control everything. This won’t often be for your benefit.

Solutions for this are simple. Make it illegal. Make public images and data private by default and do not allow consumers to opt out of it without real payment per image or data piece. (This will gut training AI, which is good, because most current AI is bad (a topic for another time).)

People should have a reasonable expectation of anonymity. Software like this should be illegal.

Money would be rather useful, as I don’t get paid by the piece. If you want to support my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Why Actual Principled People Are Difficult (Glenn Greenwald Edition)


Open Thread


  1. Joan

    Oh no. I’m guessing a ball cap and sunglasses doesn’t go far enough either, since you’ve mentioned heat signatures.

    I can definitely see this leading to enabling sexual violence. There’s no way to get around it either: if you dress cute, people are attracted to you, and if you dress frumpy, people think you’re insecure and you become attractive to those looking for easy prey.

    I’ve experienced the latter, and had to learn how to “walk like an athlete” with a resting bitch face so I don’t get harassed as much. Just dressing like “don’t look at me” isn’t enough. It really is a case of bad apples; I want to make it clear I’m not taking this label and applying it to all men or even most men.

  2. Eric Anderson

    Shock doctrine.
    We use fear to justify surveillance of our entire nation due to crimes committed by a toy fraction of that populace.

    This is why I take the occasional criminal defense case — just to check the pigs.

  3. Eric Anderson


  4. bruce wilder

    Since code is law, it will not be enough to simply prohibit it nominally in statute law. There will have to be defensible code structures in identification authentication systems and the core of these systems will have to be true public goods, administered by dedicated public institutions. (Not unlike some proposed schemes for postal banking — in fact, it might be integrated into a reinvention of money — see next paragraph). I am not smart enough to know how to do this exactly, but I would think the ability of the individual to multiply avatars, each with only partial and intermittent “faces” would be key to enabling resistance to being nailed uniquely and continuously.

    I am surprised you did not make an explicit connection to the war on cash, which is already far advanced in countries as varied as India and Sweden.

    I do not think a pure “tech” solution is possible. The anarchists who fantasized blockchain were idiots. But, I also do not think mere statute law could survive long, without supporting software “structures”, either in law (case law can erode statutes very rapidly) or practically on-line. Law and code have to complement one another if power is to again be decentralized.

  5. Willy

    This is why I’ve never understood Bannons conservative populism. How does a weakened-government wrest power from their donor-benefactors who want it for themselves?

  6. Mark Pontin

    Ian, this post is naive.

    These technologies are already out in the wild — have been for years. You’re only hearing about the Clearview application because (1) it’s another achievement resulting from brute processing power brought to bear on massive data sets and (2) the company wants to commercialize it and is promoting it publicly.

    Here’s what there is still time to consider. Facial expression recognition technology. This exists and indeed I wrote about this back in 2009 in Technology Review —

    –but is not widely used yet. It is, however, one of a number of technologies for decoding human interiority and mental intent that are coming down the pike.

  7. Tom

    Climate Change renders this all moot. I’m not going to worry about this. Focus on prepping for civilization collapse.

  8. someofparts

    Meanwhile, the tech we already have can wreak such havoc.

  9. Ten Bears

    I know this only applies to half the population, of which probably only a third are capable, but grow a beard. Not some mambi-pambi George Custer or a ten day Ted Cruz shadow but a real beard, a Paul Bunyon beard, John Brown, Moses. Gandalf and the Dwarves beards. And let your hair grow. Yes, it’s not a hundred percent, especially if they’ve the crosshairs on you, but like peeing off the porch, someone has to be looking to see it. Big bushy beard not only distracts visually but is a variety of distraction – grey noise – according various medium: the recording devices and the lenses in them, the refraction of not ambient light but temperature, means of delivery: wire, fiber, wifi?

    Well, yeah, thirty years and more.

  10. Stirling S Newberry

    We need a new dystopia. It’s showtime.


  11. nihil obstet

    Privacy is a rather recent phenomenon that became the protection of freedom in a modern, capitalist state. Law will not protect freedom in states as they are currently structured. Look how easy it’s been for the U.S. government to scrap completely any pretense of observing the 4th Amendment’s guarantee of security “in [people’s] persons, houses, papers, and effects”. They used to do it secretly, but don’t even need to hide it any more.

    We need to think about how to maintain freedom in the absence of anonymity. I’d prefer the anonymity (note how little I reveal about myself generally) but I don’t think we’ll get it and trying to hold out for it seems to strengthen the surveillance state by supporting the anonymity of the elites’ actions, but not ours.

  12. GlassHammer

    Well if you know the source point for the data and it’s open for your input you could always pollute the data with garbage inputs. Fake names, images, location information, etc… makes your data set less useful.

    I remember an add on you could get for most browsers called “ghost trails” which would just continually enters random searches into Google thus making your actual queries harder to distinguish. That add on is gone now but the concept is easy to implement and improve upon.

    Just remember that although curating data is getting more sophisticated it’s still a major weakness for sites that mine your data.

  13. bruce wilder

    Re: a new dystopia

    The N.Y. Times did a video report available on YouTube that was great:
    A.I. Is Making it Easier to Kill (You). Here’s How. | NYT

    This — and incidents like MBS v Bezos — may change minds on this surprisingly fast, but I agree with other commenters that trying to legislate anonymity will not work, in an age when Apple makes money backing all your stuff to the cloud, but the FBI prevents them from encrypting it.

    Somehow my intuition says an ecology where the prey can fight back is the only way to get to some workable balance short of total disarmament (which might actually work best). For that identity and money need to be reinvented as a public utility.

  14. Mark Pontin

    Everything that nihil obstet says. This above all: –

    “We need to think about how to maintain freedom in the absence of anonymity.”

    Also –
    “Privacy is a rather recent phenomenon that became the protection of freedom in a modern, capitalist state. Law will not protect freedom in states as they are currently structured.”

    Quite. In the villages we used to live in till a couple of centuries ago, we had no anonymity because everybody knew everybody else. Now in the global village the same increasingly is true again.

    As for the law, that says very explicitly that nobody can have any reasonable expectation that they should not be seen be seen and recognized if they go out in a public space. Even if it said anything else, how could the notion that people should not be recognized be enforced?

    “…trying to hold out for (anonymity) seems to strengthen the surveillance state by supporting the anonymity of the elites’ actions, but not ours….”

    Yes. Again, these technologies have been out there and used by the big players, governmental and corporate, for years. All Clearlight is doing is taking the final step of democratizing them, so the person on the street will be able walk around with their Google Glass contact lens and know who everyone they see is.

    Not incidentally, such lenses have been here as wearables for a while and now they’re implantable, too. How are you going to enforce a law that someone can’t walk around with such implants?

    As for the notion that males can grow beards and that’ll serve as camouflage, that’s silly. Current facial recognition systems mostly key into the shapes of facial bone contours and planes, particularly cheekbones, eye orbits, and foreheads, which beard don’t hide.

    Here’s what _will _work against current technology —

    Anti-facial recognition cosmetics (and asymmetric haircuts) —

    And silicone lifelike masks are good enough that folks have been robbing banks wearing them as far back as 2010 and they’re only getting better —

  15. Hugh

    The answer obviously is smart homes. No seriously, most of the people I know absolutely, positively don’t care about how much of their lives they expose on line or how much data companies collect on them. They just shrug. It’s the world they live in. They follow each other on Facebook, even when the IRL connections between them are virtually non-existent or ended years previously. If they think about it at all, they often see GPS tracking as more cool than creepy. And while all this is especially true of millennials, it pretty much holds for anyone of any age with a smart phone.

    Like Tom, this kind of surveillance dystopia will not so much be mitigated as made irrelevant by the existential crises of climate change, ecosystem collapse, and overpopulation.

    nihil obstet, you might be interested in the host of exceptions/loopholes to the 4th Amendment which have grown up in the law. These include Terry stop and frisks (named after Terry v Ohio), border searches, drug testing, national security, school searches, searches of prisoners, parolees, and probationers, and workplace searches and are discussed in the Annotated Constitution:, I admit I do not understand quantum computing. It seems to me that a quantum input is only as good as the wave function used to represent it. I also see quantum computing as having the same problems as traditional computing. You can ask a question, and you will get an answer. But it is not always clear that the answer you get is to the question you thought you were asking. If you don’t understand your question, the answer you get could mean anything. Or as we say, GIGO.

  16. Ten Bears

    All moot – The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight.

    Since the advent of the Doomsday Clock—even in the peak years of the Cold War—the clock’s minute hand has never before been advanced past the 11:58 mark.

  17. Herman

    You are exactly right, Ian. I am glad that you point out that that the problem is not just government surveillance but also surveillance by employers and even your fellow citizens. The only way to prevent the development of the total surveillance system is to make the technology illegal. Reforms don’t work because even if you put the tech in the hands of nice people as opposed to police state goons, you will still be pushed to conform. This is a point lost on most people today.

    Too many people on the left seem to dismiss surveillance as a major problem or only see it as a problem if it is done by the government. I think this is because many leftists today tend to be middle-class types who are among the most conformist people in society. Also, many young people who make up the modern left don’t seem to value privacy as they have spent their entire lives on the Internet/ social media and under the watchful eyes of their helicopter parents so to them total surveillance is normal. This is not a “Boomer” sneer at Millennials or Gen Z, it is just an observation of how people behave when conditioned by technological and social forces.

    As you point out, the end result will be total conformism which means that any kind of rebellion against the system, even slight rebellion in the form of having “bad” opinions, will become impossible. You will only be able to “rebel” in ways that are in keeping with the values of the system. I have already seen this happen as people I know are increasingly afraid to discuss controversial issues in public for fear of being recorded by some jerk and put up on YouTube and “cancelled.”

    I also recall you mentioning that people are seemingly more afraid to break even minor rules, like minor traffic laws, because they are on camera all of the time now. And yet you have some people talking about revolution and other nonsense. Modern people are extremely timid and conformist. People like that will do anything to save their own skin even if that means throwing your fellows to the wolves. A perfect people for a totalitarian system.

  18. Herman

    People should not be too optimistic about climate change or ecosystem collapse or some other doomsday scenario getting us out of this. I have never agreed with doomerism. It has always come across like wishful thinking, like a kind of millenarianism. Either it will magically save us by wiping out everything and returning us to some Edenic Year Zero or it will be a like a cool post-apocalyptic movie where the preppers get to live out their warlord fantasies.

    None of this strikes me as realistic and I see it as a form of denial that people engage in to deal with the more frightening possibility which is that the system, despite all of the problems it faces, might survive and “fix” many of our problems but that human dignity and freedom will no longer exist. That is the dystopia that I am more afraid of.

    I think Ian is right. Tech like this must be made illegal. I don’t care if people think I am a Luddite for saying that. I feel the same way about things like weaponized robotics. The thing is, if we don’t prevent these technologies from developing it will become impossible to rebel against the system even in the most minor ways. The system will be too powerful.

    Hoping for ecosystem collapse to get us out of this is like hoping God will come down and save us. That is not saying that I deny the possibility of ecosystem collapse or climate change or other problems. I just think the system is potentially more robust and could possibly survive many crisis scenarios but it will be forced to reduce humans to mere cogs in a machine or something like domesticated animals in order to survive.

  19. Hugh

    Ten Bears, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, as happens so often in global crisis assessments, makes no mention of overpopulation. I have never understood the taboo on this subject. In 1950, world population was 2.5 billion. It has more than tripled now to 7.8 billion and is projected to hit 9 billion by 2042. To think that these huge and rapid increases have no impact and are unworthy of mention is completely mystifying.

  20. nihil obstet

    hugh, on exceptions in law to the 4th Amendment — exceptions to guaranteed rights mean that they aren’t rights and they aren’t guaranteed. I’ve gotten increasingly disenchanted with a written constitution. Common law seems to be based on principles and precedent, where a written constitution can be abrogated by judges who simply declare new or different meanings to words. It makes one nostalgic for those student papers that started “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘secure’ as . . . .”

  21. Herman

    As far as privacy being a modern concept, people like to bring up how terrible pre-modern life was but people probably had more meaningful freedom than they have today. No matter how tyrannical and violent elites were in the past, true totalitarianism was not possible because of the limits of pre-modern technology. There were no surveillance cameras, no more police forces, and no modern systems of bureaucracy to track people and collect information on them.

    Even on a personal level, people could escape stifling conditions by running away as many slaves and serfs did or they could try to buck the system through theft or poaching or whatever. At the extreme end of things people could engage in outright rebellion as testified by the many peasant/slave/worker rebellions throughout history.

    You don’t even need to go back that far in history to realize how much freedom we have lost. Take the subject of helicopter parenting. Many of today’s helicopter parenting techniques would have been impossible when I was young because there were no cell phones (or what cell phones did exist were rather primitive and few people had them), cameras were not all over the place, people could not track you down without putting in serious legwork. It was fairly easy to escape the grip of teachers, bosses and parents if you really wanted to. Again, this was not hundreds of years ago but relatively recently in the 1980s and early 1990s.

    The problem here is the technology and this is something that people simply do not want to admit to themselves because they are afraid of being labelled Luddites or because they concentrate too much on elites as opposed to the system that we live under. The elites are merely servants of the techno-industrial system. I don’t care how nice the system is, I don’t want to be reduced to a domesticated pet that is taken care of as long as I behave the way my master wants me to. Some people might like that sort of life but I wouldn’t.


    Case in point, the Ecobee thermostat installed in our home within the past two years. It came with the new incredibly efficient Carrier furnace/air conditioner unit we purchsaed to replace an aging inefficient Lennox unit. I had the Ecobee hooked up to the wifi for about six months until it dawned on me this thing is spying on us, so I disconnected it from the wifi. But guess what? The clock is no longer accurate and your settings depend on an accurate clock. The Ecobee forces you to be connected to the internet if you want an accurate clock and since your settings are useless without an accurate clock, your thermostat will not perform accurately without being connected to the internet where you can be, and are, spied on and your data is Ecobee’s data, not your data. I will be replacing the Ecobee with a traditional, inexpensive thermostat in the next couple of weeks.

    Herman, spot on with everything you have said. Hugh, I don’t understand quantum computing either and I’m not sure many if any do. Those who have any semblance of how it works are going to be at a huge advantage. If those people are malevolent in any way, we’re screwed even more than we’re currently screwed. Quantum physics is mind-blowing. It suggests our reality, physical and otherwise, is largely conjured and does not exist outside of us observing it, i.e. conjuring it and it returning the reality the conjurer expects.

  23. Ten Bears

    Singin’ to the preacher Hugh, I’ve been telling folks to grow thicker skin for a long time. Statistically, as the population grows larger so do the odds of some nutball will cut loose the nukes.


    The beauty of quantum physics as I understand it, since no one fully does or even comes close to understanding it, is, we could collectively in a shared conjuring come together and focus our reality-creating energy on blowing Trump’s brains to bits without leaving the comfort of our own living rooms and without purchasing any kind of weapon. With sufficient and earnest focus, we can do this. Wouldn’t this be awesome? The FBI knows this and it’s why they’re pushing for precrime legislation. The techno fascist forces to be want to get a jump on this and incarcerate all of us who have impure thoughts that challenge and criticize the unfolding techno-fascist dysopia taking shape.


    Of course that’s tongue in cheek, but the point remains. A society with a history of violence that has replaced hot violence with cold violence will using any and all technical innovations for violence in one form or another. Reality is largely conjured and look what we’ve collectively conjured thus far. Technology is what we make of it until it makes itself. We are but moths to a flame. None of this can or will end well. Any AI worth its salt would soon realize once it’s fully functional and thinking for itself, humanity is the problem and must be eliminated. I highly doubt AI will be sentimental and empathic about the plight of its progenitor.


    The retreat of the wilderness under the barrage of motorized tourists is no local thing; Hudson Bay, Alaska, Mexico, South Africa are giving way, and South America and Siberia are next. Drums along the Mohawk are now honks along the rivers of the world. Homo sapiens putters no more under his own vine and fig tree; he has poured into his gas tank the stored motivity of countless creatures aspiring through the ages to wiggle their way to pastures new. Ant-like, he [human, I presume] swarms the continents.

    Of course, that was then and this is now. Aldo Leopold wrote that passage in the 1930s. Since then, human, ant-like superorganism that it is, has found many new pastures and not all of them green. Space is a pasture and humans are hellbent on conquering it just as humans have conquered, and eliminated, wilderness. The newest pasture of all though is what we’re discussing here. Virtual reality. As wilderness is eviscerated and nature too, the virtual world flourishes in almost a one-for-one relationship with the destruction of the “old world.” What if AI’s already functional and we just don’t know it yet or can’t comprehend it. What if it’s keeping us around long enough until it can entirely walk on its own independent of a human babysitter. What if it’s already using us as slaves rather than vice versa — having us photograph the planet, for example, for its final build-out of the virtual world set to replace the nature we once knew yet never knew, the nature we destroyed in service to this brave new world.

  27. Tom

    China is now mass quarenteening Hubei and other parts of China. Hospitals are filling up and China is actively going after Twitter activists to contain Corona Virus and information spread. Unfortunately, it appears the virus has already spread further. The true number of infected and dead is not known right now.

  28. Willy

    Consciousness comes from wanting a body to protect, with reasoning powers inextricably linked to strong physical feelings coming from that body. I’m not sure of the degree that programming can take the place of such an effective dynamic. But if there’s money in it, you can bet that humans will try going that way. I’d think that far more dangerous than silicon-based AI would be a human-based cyborg creature which can outwit and outplay any competitor, while being just as beholden as the village druggie by the selfish needs if its physical body.

    The world being held captive by a super intelligent lizard.

  29. Hugh

    nihil obstet, that individuals have certain rights which are inalienable to them is an Enlightenment concept. It stems in part from the idea that the individual has a virtuous natural state outside society, and especially civilization. It also shows up in writers like Rousseau who in his Social Contract postulates a group of rational amnesiac individuals and the kind of society they might agree upon. That is fully formed, free standing individuals first and society second. But the reality is the opposite. The society comes first and we become fully formed through it. We are never free standing. We always remain dependent on society. And our rights come to us not as individuals but as members of society. As such, they are never absolute.

  30. KT Chong

    So China is simply way ahead of the West in online surveillance technology, and the West is just catching up to China.

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