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Digital River - Talk to the Experts

Here's Looking at Me, iPhone

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Dec 5, 2013 5:00 AM PT

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office just granted Apple a patent for a facial recognition feature that could unlock a mobile device as well as control how it works. That's right, Apple just got a patent so our iPhones and iPads can look at us all the time.

Here's Looking at Me, iPhone

I just got used to the idea of using my fingerprint to unlock an iPhone 5s, but now my face? Will it recognize me after a hard night of drinking when I've got a throbbing hangover? Will I have to smile and patiently train it -- and then lock myself out of my iPhone after I start yelling at it for being stupid and not recognizing my delightful expression the first time, in poor light?

Those were my knee-jerk reactions as I read the news and rolled my eyes. The forward march of technology. The Xbox One wants to pay attention to the humans around it all the time. Android has had facial recognition unlocking capabilities for a couple years or so. Heck, every time I import new photos into iPhoto on my Mac, iPhoto starts analyzing the photos to identify new faces to catalog for me.

Yet I'm vaguely uneasy about all this. It's not that I fear a rising horde of machines will take over the world. I'm uneasy about the potential for dark uses this sort of technology opens up -- and you don't have to be an Edward Snowden working deep inside the NSA to know it.

To me, it represents another step toward ubiquitous surveillance, and that, my friends, is an evil thing for creativity. Who does their best work while someone is peering over their shoulder? Thoughts and ideas are moderated before they can escape, lest someone see something stupid, nasty or simply silly. Surveillance impinges on freedom -- the sense of freedom -- and to me, that stifles the human spirit, sucks human energy, and modulates joy.

But Apple's Face Recognition Patent Isn't About Surveillance!

Of course, Apple's mobile device facial recognition patent isn't about surveillance -- it's fundamentally designed to be a secure, useful new feature. But guess what? These sorts of technologies don't stop with unlocking devices. They don't stop with letting you control who gets to see who's calling by whose face your iPhone sees.

The next steps are getting phones and apps to start using sentiment analysis. Are you happy when you play a game and come upon a certain challenge? As you watch a politician speak, what do the subtle tics of your face reveal? When you see an ad, what reaction do you want stored and attached to your growing file in databases around the world?

How might super-smart computers start crunching this data to start labeling you in order to maximize profits -- or influence your behavior? If you perk up every time you see a hot blonde woman in an ad, will you only start seeing what you "like" as all of this data about you builds up and becomes tuned just for you? (Oh, wait, this is already happening. OK then, will it happen more on a more intimate scale?)

It might start with something innocuous like this: All you will have to do is smile at a stupid dancing cat photo, and boom, your favorite social media app will like it for you. Isn't that cool?

No. None of it is. Why? I have a vague, uneasy feeling that these sorts of things fracture our sense of self, our ability to interact in person, our ability to engage with physical reality.

Whoa, dude, aren't you getting a little far afield here?

Yes and no. The problem with the fast march of magical technology is that we don't collectively think through the ramifications of its effects. We don't think about what is important to us as humans -- as a society -- nearly often enough. I know I don't. My excuse? I don't have time. And this opinion just scratches the surface.

Meanwhile, I Sort of Want Facial Recognition on My iPhone

Damn it, I hate to admit it, but I also want facial recognition on my iPhone. Not because I want to wave it in front of my face to signal my intent to wake it up. No, I want to be able to hand my phone to a friend or kid and not have to worry that they'll a) see something inappropriate, like a bad joke from that one guy friend, b) see private or confidential messages, notifications or phone calls, c) mess with any of my mail or calendar, even accidentally, or d) tweet out some photo or status update by accident or on purpose. See, my iPhone and iPad are connected to my career, to my work, to my budget -- and they are powerful devices.

Apple doesn't let us have any sort of user switching -- parental controls are woeful, too -- so when you hand your iPhone or iPad to someone, you hand them all sorts of power.

Apple's facial recognition patent gives me hope that Apple might let us control access to these devices and apps within them -- even my Mac -- through who's interacting with a device in a particular moment.

I want that user-related control. Even if -- use your imagination and insert a growl here -- it means my iPhone will start staring back at me.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.

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Digital River - Talk to the Experts