Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Big Brother is a Pimple-Faced Geek

We’ve come a long way from Black Bear #32.

Remember him from the grainy video of a campsite after dark in Yosemite National Park? Focused and following his nose, oblivious to the fact that he’s sporting a giant numbered ear tag; he’s breaking the back window of a camper’s Corolla and climbing in to steal his Twinkies.

Surveillance technology was #32’s downfall. That hapless beast, already identified, had his fate sealed - a swift relocation to the nether regions of the park. No more s’mores for you!

The first time-stamped video we reviewed at my school after the district installed security equipment showed a student in the 300 wing looking intently into the camera, his nose growing larger as he moved closer and closer. Slowly he reached up to stick a Post-It note on the lens, supposing this would prevent us from knowing who turned over all the trash cans in that wing.

You might expect we’ve become more tuned-in to the ubiquitous eyes upon us, but consider the laptop thief you may have seen on the news this week. He didn’t realize he’d stolen a device with an internal camera and software called “Hidden” that documented his actions and tracked his movements.

With the software’s help, the laptop’s rightful owner chronicled the thief’s daily routines, mundane and pathetic as they were, not in fuzzy “is that the guy?” ATM video, but in unmistakable full color clarity.

When the police couldn’t prioritize the crime, the incensed victim ran a series of captioned still shots on his blog, taken by the very laptop stolen from him, showing the thief in various compromising situations: Curled into the fetal position on his couch, with the title – “Guy sleeping on the couch next to my MacBook;” With a fixed gaze sitting just right of center frame – “Guy staring deliriously into my MacBook;” and best of all, the perpetrator shirtless and in bed – “I don’t want to know what this guy’s doing in bed with my MacBook.”

Just like single-minded Black Bear #32, and a clueless high school sophomore, the reality show led to the thief’s apprehension and arrest.

Stop light cameras keep us under the eye of Big Ticket Brother if we practice the California rolling stop instead of the full and complete stop “The Law” requires. Tollbooth cameras and now even carpool lane cameras rat us out if we try to save a few bucks or a few minutes just this once.

And now, perhaps the most sinister new development of all, Facebook has completed a "silent roll out" of their new facial recognition software. Here’s how it works: You attend your niece’s Christening and appear in photos posted on the proud parent’s wall. Your sister “tags” you by clicking on your face and entering your name, which is listed in the picture’s caption. Lovely, wholesome family fare. No harm in that.

But now, Facebook stores a digital record of your face in its giant databank in the sky. And, whenever your likeness appears again, on anyone’s page in any setting at any time, Facebook recognizes it and says to the poster of your photo, “Look, it’s YOU! Want to tag YOU in this photo?”

Let’s say you go down to Fisherman’s Wharf to scout out some dinner. A tourist lines up his wife and child in front of the crab pots and snaps a picture of them and YOU in the background. No biggy, he doesn’t know you anyway. His family back in Amarillo will only wish you hadn’t cluttered the scene.

But what if you’re playing hooky from work? Or bending your elbow with buddies at the bar instead of attending your mother-in-law’s Sunday dinner? White lies exposed, and shenanigans fair game, we can no longer be certain everything stays in Vegas.

There’s no reclaiming lost privacy. We slid past the bottom of the slope sometime shortly after the manager at 7-11 put up the fish-eyed mirror to watch over the corn nuts on his snack aisle.

Sure, we can opt out of Facebook’s facial recognition “service,” now that they’ve told us they opted us in.

But don’t kid yourself, Mark Zuckerberg, and God knows who else, is watching.