There is a television writers’ trick often employed to move a plot along, the fictional use of alleged facial recognition software.
I have no idea how sophisticated FR really is, but I do know that those who propound its magic have no incentive to tell us its limitations. Just as a car salesman will romance us with purported positives all day long, while neglecting potential flaws, script writers and law enforcement officials have vested interests in our belief in the wonders of science.
The worst part is that if the insiders say some technology works, human nature is such that they are lying. The technology is likely to be “not ready for prime time.” If we can’t check their veracity, they can demand our faith.
Citing documents gathered by Georgetown Law researchers, the Post reports that at least two federal agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have — for years — mined state photo ID databases to populate their own facial recognition databases.
To put a finer point on it, those agencies have been conducting warrantless searches, seizing private biometric data on the entire population of the United States, most of whom are neither charged with, nor suspected of committing, a crime.
They’ve conducted these fishing expeditions not just without warrants, but absent even the fig leaf of legislation from Congress or state legislatures to lend supposed legitimacy to the programs.
The Post story, intentionally or not, makes it clear that Congress must follow San Francisco’s example and ban use of facial recognition technology, as well as repeal its national photo ID (“REAL ID”) scheme, and require federal agencies to delete their facial recognition databases. The states should either lead the way or follow suit by doing away with government-issued photo identification altogether.
Photo ID has always been marginally useful at best. Anyone who’s ever worked at a bar or liquor store knows that it’s unreliable on a visual check — and that its uses have been stretched far beyond its supposed purposes.
The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license. States imposed their licensing schemes on a seemingly justifiable pretext: A driver’s license proves that the driver whose photograph appears on it has taken and passed a test demonstrating safety and proficiency behind the wheel.
There are ways to do that without a photo. Three that come to mind are a fingerprint, a digitized summary of an iris scan, or a similar summary of a DNA scan.
Yes, those methods are more expensive and impose a slightly higher burden on law enforcement in identifying a driver who’s been pulled over or arrested (and on anyone else who wants to confirm an individual’s identity). But they’re also far more reliable and less easily used in pulling police-state type abuses like those described in the Post story. They can’t be used for easy warrantless searches via distant cameras.
In recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the conversation over personal privacy has revolved around how much of that privacy “must” be sacrificed to make law enforcement’s job easier.
The answer to that question is “none.”
It’s not an American’s job to make law enforcement’s job easier. It’s law enforcement’s job to respect that American’s rights.
Since law enforcement has continuously proven itself both unwilling and untrustworthy on that count, we need to deprive it of tools that enable that unwillingness and untrustworthiness.
Photo ID is obsolete and unnecessary. Facial recognition technology makes it dangerous. Let’s take those tools away from their abusers.
To understand how American citizens today can get their hands on ammo, which rolls off the same factory lines as those that supply the world’s largest militaries, it’s important to first understand how munitions technology developed. Starting in medieval Europe, on a battlefield where a mounted knight in armor could defeat almost any number of peasants, the development of more advanced and accurate ways to destroy enemy personnel and equipment by launching a projectile is one which combines trial and error, scientific ingenuity, and private enterprise. It’s a story of power and technology dating back to the 13th century, at the height of “the divine right of kings,” and tracks the subsequent diffusion of that power held by a chosen few as the individual became capable of breaking the state’s monopoly on violence.
The first recorded use of gunpowder appeared in Europe in 1247, although China had used gunpowder for centuries before that, mostly for fireworks. The cannon appeared nearly 100 years later in 1327, with a hand-sized version making its debut in 1364. The first ordnances were made of stone, and while it might have been theoretically possible for anyone to own one, this would have been outside the financial reach of anyone but the nobility.
Stone was quickly discarded as a source of materiel for one simple reason: It wasn’t effective against stone fortifications. Thus did the first ever arms race begin, as medieval armies sought ways to fire heavier and heavier projectiles. The first recorded example of a metal ball being fired from a hand cannon came in 1425, with the invention of the hand culverin and matchlock arquebus, which led to lead balls becoming the gold standard for projectiles. This is where we get the term “bullet” – boulette is French for “little ball.”
Ammunition remained largely the same for centuries: Little balls of metal virtually anyone could make. This was true until the invention of rifling in the mid-19th century. Even this invention was, at first, not terribly useful for military purposes. Not only did the barrels quickly become useless, but the barrels often could not be fitted with a bayonet. This made early rifles impractical for military use and mostly a bit of a toy. Not until the advent of progressive rifling (which came, depending on one’s point of view, fortuitously or not, in the middle of the U.S. Civil War), did rifles become practical for military, and also widespread civilian purposes.
Copper jacketed bullets arrived in 1882, but since then the development of both military and commercial ammo has largely been about degrees rather than revolutionary innovations like rifling. The same basic design for cartridges has been in place since the late 19th Century.
Advancing technology was likely a driver in the move toward ammunition produced for commercial purposes, rather than simply military use. While in the past, it was common to simply make lead balls in front of the fire as a family after dinner, making a modern rifle cartridge is far beyond the means of most people. Further, it requires safety procedures above and beyond simply molding lead balls.
The claim often heard from those attempting to pass more gun control legislation is that all they’re trying to do is get the “weapons of war off our streets,” but it’s simply untrue that “weapons of war” are available to the general public. You’d last about three minutes in a conventional war with an AR-15, even with one of the most aggressive builds you can get your hands on (that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for guerrilla uprisings to defeat powerful enemies). The truth is that the only people with “weapons of war” on America’s streets are, increasingly, the police.
And just as when “all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail”, militarized police have become more willing to use their new weapons when carrying out law enforcement tasks. For example, the number of SWAT raids in the United States grew dramatically from about 3,000 in 1980, to a whopping 50,000 SWAT raids in 2014, according to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
To say that the militarization of the police is nothing new is to ignore America’s recent history as well as the long-standing model of a peace officer. As the police have militarized and the Pentagon backs major players in Hollywood, the focus has shifted from one who keeps the peace to one who enforces the law – and that’s an important difference.
Jan Koum had a rough upbringing. At 16, he immigrated from Europe to the United States with his mother and grandmother, who were fleeing political unrest and religious persecution. Jan’s mother got a job as a babysitter in California while Jan went to school and worked at a grocery store cleaning floors.
His father planned to join Jan and his mother once they were settled, but he got sick and died five years later, unable to be reunited with his family. Jan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, to which she would succumb just three years after Jan’s father passed away.
Jan Overcame Adversity
Perhaps not surprisingly given the adversity in his life, Jan acted out in school and got into trouble. He disliked school and what he found to be the shallow relationships of high school students. He barely graduated, but during his teen years in the US, Jan began to teach himself. He became interested in computers and networks and bought books and manuals on these topics at a nearby used bookstore, returning them when finished to get his money back.
He taught himself network engineering and eventually enrolled at San Jose University to study computer science and mathematics while getting involved in online network groups and hacker communities. Like high school, college also wasn’t appealing to Jan. “I hated school,” he told Forbes.
During college, Jan took a part-time job with the large accounting firm Ernst & Young, helping with computer security audits. One of E&Y’s clients with which Jan worked was Yahoo! and he was offered a job with the tech company while still studying at San Jose University. He quit college soon after to work full-time at Yahoo!.
Jan got bored with Yahoo!. At 31, he quit and took some time off to travel the world with a friend who also left Yahoo!. The duo applied for work at Facebook, but both were turned down. Two years later Jan bought an iPhone. He saw the potential of the App Store world and began working on code to create a new application that would streamline communication and conversation. Frustrated by his inability to get it working, Jan Koun almost gave up.
American Success Story
He stuck with his invention a bit longer and in 2009, at age 33, Jan Koum founded the text messaging platform WhatsApp with his former Yahoo! colleague Brian Acton. In 2014, it had 400 million users worldwide, and the pair sold the company to Facebook for $19 billion.
They might not have gotten that job offer at Facebook, but the offer they eventually got was something far better. By 2017, WhatsApp had 1.3 billion monthly users and billionaire Koum, who spent his childhood in communist Ukraine, became an American success story, showing the transformative power of freedom, entrepreneurship, and self-education.
I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on…Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state – the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.
Koum’s teenage self-education took place in the 1990s, before knowledge and information were so widely available and easily accessible, often at our fingertips. Today, a kid like Koum wouldn’t have a used bookstore as his only resource. He would be able to learn network engineering or any topic that interested him through free, online information portals and connect easily with people from around the world, finding mentors and like-minded peers—thanks in large part to inventions like WhatsApp.
Technology increasingly facilitates self-education, leading to new opportunities to pursue passions and uncover talents. Unlike formal education, that to many people like Koum can be stifling, self-education can be liberating. With self-education, you can become the agent of your own life and livelihood, setting your own path. As the author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn wrote: “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”
For Koum, that fortune was big, but the rest of us gained too. Freedom and entrepreneurship lead to the innovations that improve our lives and give our own dreams a boost, and self-education is the pathway to get there.
We can predict the future of education by glimpsing the past of transportation. Fueled by technological innovation, namely electricity, streetcars gradually replaced the horse-and-buggy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by mass-produced automobiles that ultimately toppled the streetcar.
Throughout the 20th century, cars became safer, faster, cleaner, and cheaper and allowed individuals unprecedented mobility and autonomy. Then, in the 21st century, car-sharing applications showed how technology could once again disrupt the transportation industry, expanding rider options and challenging entrenched systems of control.
Education transformation will take a similar path. Fueled by technological innovation, schools are now in the middle of their streetcar moment. Chalkboards are still ubiquitous, but computers are increasingly being used not only to supplement learning but also to administer it. Personalized learning, as this technology-enabled classroom education is called, is all the rage.
In public schools like those using Summit Learning, a personalized, online learning approach developed by Facebook engineers and funded by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the computer becomes the teacher, executing a largely self-paced curriculum and offering more flexibility and autonomy for students.True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. The platform has sparked controversy, as some parents and educators resist change. Like the streetcar and transportation, personalized learning in schools is altering and modernizing the educational landscape. But it is just a launchpad.
True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. Personalized learning in conventional schools will shift to self-directed education or unschooling, driven by the learner herself using the resource-rich networks of both real and digital communities. As Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society:
The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.
Illich wrote those words in 1970 before the technological webs now at our fingertips were ever imagined. The funnel model of education, even when augmented by technology, is simply passé. Conflating learning with schooling, mired in coercion and a controlled curriculum, is an outdated idea. Schooling is something that others do to you; learning is something you do for yourself.
A New Perspective on Learning Itself
We already see how this works in our own adult lives. Just as the first automobiles began to disrupt old notions of transportation, recent technological innovations are recalibrating the way we learn. Whether it’s using YouTube to fix a toilet, Duolingo to learn a language, Audible to listen to books, or FaceTime to have lessons with your guitar instructor, technological platforms and applications are quickly helping us to shed our schooled vision of learning. Increasingly, we see that we can self-educate by following our own curiosities and pursuing our own personal and professional goals.
We can choose our own teachers and select the learning tools that work best for us. In his book, Illich wrote,
School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.
Technology frees us from this institutional paradigm of education and lets us teach ourselves.
It can do the same for our children. As our own relationship to learning shifts in response to new technologies that make information and knowledge more accessible, we may begin to question the worn-out ways our children learn. As we realize the value and reward of self-education in our own lives, we’ll want to give this gift to our children.
Minimally Invasive Education
In his academic papers and award-winning 2013 TED Talk, Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra explains how children teach themselves without institutional schooling. His “hole in the wall” studies have been widely cited, showing how children from the poorest slums of India to elsewhere around the world are able to learn to read, to teach themselves English, and to understand advanced scientific content (like DNA replication) simply by having access to an Internet-enabled public computer.
Mitra calls this approach “minimally invasive education” and concludes in his talk:
If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen.
Thanks to technology, we adults now see this learning emerge all the time in our own lives. It can be the same for our children.
In the 21st century, the transportation industry was jolted again by technological innovation. Uber, Lyft, and other car-sharing companies challenged longstanding local monopolies, granting riders more choice and flexibility with better service and lower costs. Next, autonomous vehicles may be the new wave of disruptive innovation in transportation. Meanwhile, in education, technology will continue to expand access to resources, information, knowledge, and skills that make self-education outside of schooling not only possible but preferable.
Like the streetcar and horse-and-buggy, institutional schooling will become a cultural relic, a quaint reminder of yesteryear. We will realize that non-coercive, technology-enabled, self-directed education in collaboration with others results in better, more meaningful, more enduring learning than its institutional predecessors can offer. We will realize that we can be educated without being schooled. Indeed, the future is here.