Philip Wolfson, author of Faces Tell All has recently written an article in the Asbury Park Press concerning the use of facial surveillance to track the spread of coronavirus. He was able to offer his knowledge and insights about mass surveillance and the development of special sensors that can diagnose disease.
The current coronavirus threat has given the Chinese government, already the world’s leader in mass surveillance, another excuse to control the whereabouts and behavior of its huge population, as authorities have installed many more cameras besides the millions already in place. The technology now incorporates infrared thermal sensors that detect viral fevers and other elevated body temperatures typically seen in infected people.
As the author of a recent spy novel focusing on facial surveillance, I was struck by news that governments are employing both facial recognition and diagnosis to spot cases of coronavirus—technology that I had anticipated in my book, Faces Tell All.
Camera sensors may also detect skin color and texture changes that reflect other aspects of health and disease. Similar technology is described in Faces Tell All, as fictional characters develop a face-reading phone app for the dating crowd that gauges stress, emotions and fitness levels among prospective mates.
In the book, the app’s potential for espionage draws eventual attention from the CIA and Chinese intelligence. In real life, the national security implications of widespread facial surveillance go beyond spying, to now include disease control and the diagnosing of mental and physical capabilities of whole populations. This kind of information could be invaluable to health practitioners but also to adversaries in the global arena.
Although facial recognition technology has run into understandable public resistance in the democracies due to concerns about privacy and government intrusion, such scruples are observed little, if at all, by totalitarian regimes. Indeed, the Russians have also, reportedly, instituted mass camera surveillance, utilizing diagnostic sensors as well as facial recognition software, to track and enforce the quarantining of coronavirus victims.
What do I think, as an average citizen—albeit with some knowledge of the technology involved—about this possible new intrusion into our lives that can reveal supposedly private and protected information? Admittedly, a double-edged sword: if knowledge is power, it can be wielded—for good or ill—by individuals, corporations or governments.
An actual face-reading app for individual use offers intriguing possibilities and may be realized.
Meanwhile, corporations have already developed programs that go far beyond mere facial recognition, to comprehensive facial analysis—including eye-tracking—that evaluates shoppers’ or employees’ likes and dislikes, or, for that matter, the disposition of any crowd of people.
Where is all this leading? Who knows. But, as usual, fully-informed citizens would be best protected in this brave new world of surveillance where big brother is always watching. Educate ourselves about possible threats to our health, but also to our civil liberties. And, make sure our voices are heard by those in power.