One of the issues that we have reported on several times is the increasing use of facial recognition technology. At first it was just used at border crossing points such as airports, but increasingly it is being used in-country by other authorities such as police, private companies and local government administrations. This makes it harder and harder for spies to move around the world anonymously. No longer is it simply a matter of picking up a false passport and booking an airline ticket. Intelligence services have dealt with this new problem in a number of different ways: It has led to an increase in the use of disguise (the CIA has recently increased its number of hairdressers and makeup artists), clandestine insertions of personnel (such as by boat or light aircraft) and the use of “citizen spies” as couriers (as we have reported on several occasions).
Of course, the increased use of this sort of surveillance technology has implications not only for spies but also for the civil liberties of ordinary citizens. Do they really want a society where their every movement can be monitored by their government whenever that government so wishes? Maybe they do. It is that age old question of the balance in trading liberty for security. So far, in this terrorism conscious age, security has been winning the argument.
Now there has been a move in the opposite direction. San Francisco has become the first city authority to ban the use of facial recognition technology by its officers. This decision will not effect such places as ports and airports as these are covered by federal authorities, but it will cover such organisations as the San Francisco police. The reason for the decision was not only the civil liberty implications, but also the fact that the technology is not yet highly reliable. The software has particular difficulties differentiating people of colour and this leads to a lot of false negatives. However the technology is known to be improving rapidly and it is the civil liberties argument that was the most important.
Opponents of the ban say that the local police have been denied a vital tool in the fight against crime and that this ban will put citizens at risk. We shall see. But in the meantime, it is a little bit of good news for spies.