Joseph J. Atick frets that he may have abetted a technology that could upend the social order.
Joseph J. Atick cased the floor of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington as if he owned the place. In a way, he did. He was one of the organizers of the event, a conference and trade show for the biometrics security industry. Perhaps more to the point, a number of the wares on display, like an airport face-scanning checkpoint, could trace their lineage to his work.
A physicist, Dr. Atick is one of the pioneer entrepreneurs of modern face recognition. Having helped advance the fundamental face-matching technology in the 1990s, he went into business and promoted the systems to government agencies looking to identify criminals or prevent identity fraud. “We saved lives,” he said during the conference in mid-March. “We have solved crimes.”
Thanks in part to his boosterism, the global business of biometrics — using people’s unique physiological characteristics, like their fingerprint ridges and facial features, to learn or confirm their identity — is booming. It generated an estimated $7.2 billion in 2012, according to reports by Frost & Sullivan.
Making his rounds at the trade show, Dr. Atick, a short, trim man with an indeterminate Mediterranean accent, warmly greeted industry representatives at their exhibition booths. Once he was safely out of earshot, however, he worried aloud about what he was seeing. What were those companies’ policies for retaining and reusing consumers’ facial data? Could they identify individuals without their explicit consent? Were they running face-matching queries for government agencies on the side?
Now an industry consultant, Dr. Atick finds himself in a delicate position. While promoting and profiting from an industry that he helped foster, he also feels compelled to caution against its unfettered proliferation. He isn’t so much concerned about government agencies that use face recognition openly for specific purposes — for example, the many state motor vehicle departments that scan drivers’ faces as a way to prevent license duplications and fraud. Rather, what troubles him is the potential exploitation of face recognition to identify ordinary and unwitting citizens as they go about their lives in public. Online, we are all tracked. But to Dr. Atick, the street remains a haven, and he frets that he may have abetted a technology that could upend the social order.
Face-matching today could enable mass surveillance, “basically robbing everyone of their anonymity,” he says, and inhibit people’s normal behavior outside their homes. Pointing to the intelligence documents made public by Edward J. Snowden, he adds that once companies amass consumers’ facial data, government agencies might obtain access to it, too.
To many in the biometrics industry, Dr. Atick’s warning seems Cassandra-like. Face recognition to them is no different from a car, a neutral technology whose advantages far outweigh the risks. The conveniences of biometrics seem self-evident: Your unique code automatically accompanies you everywhere. They envision a world where, instead of having to rely on losable ID cards or on a jumble of easily forgettable — not to mention hackable — passwords, you could unlock your smartphone or gain entry to banks, apartment complexes, parking garages and health clubs just by showing your face.
Dr. Atick sees convenience in these kinds of uses as well. But he provides a cautionary counterexample to make his case.