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FBI Face-Recognition Surveillance

September 13, 2012

(Note: This article was written years ago, but the general idea it expresses is just as relevant today even if the methods of surveillance may have increased or changed.)


Like many of us (I'm guessing) I recently received in my email's inbox a message with this link about the FBI's latest awful invasion of our privacy in the name of "protecting us from terrorists"--face-recognition surveillance.

I'm sure we all agree that what the FBI is doing is very bad. The question is, how will we respond to this increased surveillance?

Anonymous released a video giving ways to foil the facial recognition software by doing things like tilting one's head, wearing makeup or a mask, or wearing a baseball cap with LED lights hooked to a battery. I'm probably not going to do any of these things, but I admire the spirit of Anonymous: their attitude is to fight back and not to retreat in fear.

I think there are two actual purposes for the FBI and similar surveillance measures, neither of which is to catch terrorists.

The first purpose is to create a fear of terrorists in the general population, by reminding us every time we see one of those omnipresent surveillance cameras that, "There are terrorists amongst us, and the price of security is to give up our privacy." This is the same purpose as the Orwellian wars, to create a war mentality on the basis of which follows the conclusion that one must obey the government or else one is a traitor. Subway riders in Boston are often subjected to loudspeaker announcements saying, "Now more than ever, if you see something, say something" and big signs in the subway stations remind us to report suspicious backpacks left unattended. It's all a form of propaganda to make us feel that our government is protecting us from terrorists, and we should support the government and "join the team."

I am always reminded of how the surveillance is not really designed to catch anybody by what happens on every graduation day where I used to work at the Harvard School of Public Health. On those days security was beefed up, so that when I (or anybody else) entered the building the security guard asked me to open up my book bag for inspection. My bag, like most, has several different-size compartments, each with its own zipper. I would always open the small compartment only and the security guard never bothered to look into the large compartment. One day I asked the guard, with whom I was friendly, why they never asked to thoroughly search the bag. He told me, "It was all for show."

The second reason for the surveillance is to intimidate people, to make them too afraid* to do anything in resistance to the ruling class, to make people feel they are a completely vulnerable individual who can be singled out from a large crowd (with facial recognition now), arrested and possibly tortured or (if placed on Obama's infamous Tuesday kill list) killed.

The question for us is, then, will we be intimated from building a revolutionary movement, or not? I say, let's not be intimidated.

Let's keep in mind that our strength is in numbers. The great majority of people have implicitly anti-capitalist values and want a more equal and democratic society, not the kind of Orwellian 1984 world of increasing inequality and diminished liberties that the ruling elite are foisting on us. Huge numbers of people reject or at least are very skeptical of the ruling class's "War on Terror" lies (as discussed here). Massive organized collective resistance breaks out from time to time, from things like the Occupy movement to the current strike of Chicago teachers. And less visible acts of resistance, by individuals, goes on all the time, when people try to shape the little corner of the world over which they have any control with the anti-capitalist values of equality and concern for one another and democratic ways of making decisions.

We should never forget that, in resisting the ruling class, we are legion! The rulers can spy on us all they want. They can use Facebook to trace our social connections, and spy cameras to tell where we shop and what bars we go to. They can use Google to see what people talk about (and see that there are millions who don't like the status quo one bit.) They can do all of that.

But so what! What are they going to do with all of that information? They can't put everybody who opposes their oppressive rule in prison, and they know it. They can trick some not-too-smart individuals into doing something stupid that fits into the government's fantasy stereotype of a terrorist and then arrest them with great media fan fare, but we're not so stupid as to get snared by such a trap. They can arrest a smart person who is building a revolutionary movement the way we are--by talking with people about good ideas--and try to make an example of that person to scare others, but this will only anger everybody who knows the arrested person and make them more certain of the need for revolution. (I am reminded here of what happened when Dartmouth College in 1969 arrested and jailed about forty students who had taken over the administration building demanding that ROTC (which trained 2nd lieutenants for the Vietnam war) be abolished. It so angered the rest of the three thousand students that the school shut down in protest, the faculty voted support for the students and called for ROTC to be removed, and the Trustees had to have an emergency meeting to figure out what to do and they decided to abolish ROTC.)

When millions of people start thinking about revolution and talking about it with others and attending events like demonstrations or engaging in actions like strikes with revolutionary ideas in the air, it does the ruling class no good whatsoever to know the million details they acquire, with their fancy surveillance, about what the names of these people are and who they associate with and where they shop and what they read etc. etc.

Surveillance is no match at all for a mass movement that knows what it wants and is determined to get it. The FBI can recognize our faces all it wants. We will still win.



* See for example this report about how there was a sudden drop in the number of people reading Wikipedia articles about terrorism right after Edward Snowden exposed the fact that the NSA was spying on people's internet searches. Also see this article about how mass surveillance silences the expression of dissident opinions.

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