October 2019

Volume 34 Number 10

[Don't Get Me Started]

Who're You Looking At?

By David S. Platt | October 2019

David S. PlattWe tackle many computing problems thinking only of the upside—“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could [whatever]?” However, once we’ve solved the interesting computing problem, we find that its application to society is always double-edged. There’s no such thing as a single-edged technology. I think that’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The example I’ve been thinking most about lately is facial recognition. It’s a fabulous technical challenge, harnessing all kinds of computing to do what a newborn baby can do within a week of birth. It’s tricky, but we’ve now crossed the watershed to where, while not perfect, it’s commercially viable.

The upside of this accomplishment is obvious. Programs and devices can now recognize us when we want them to. Microsoft Hello now automatically recognizes its user, without the need for passwords (see msdn.com/magazine/mt833498). Think of the seconds saved over many interactions with many users, and we’ve recovered a whole lot of time for humanity.

The downside is also obvious. Programs and devices can now recognize us when we don’t want them to. The security systems at the local casino could tell my boss I was there playing blackjack when I claimed to be home sick. Governments and security forces could track and record exactly who attended a rally for which cause. Is this the type of information we want companies and governments stockpiling?

We have to make these decisions soon. The refusal to make them will itself be a definite decision, and probably not the one we want. Microsoft President Brad Smith calls for immediate government action: “We believe it’s important for governments in 2019 to start adopting laws to regulate this technology. The facial recognition genie … is just emerging from the bottle,” Smith says. “We risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues. By that time, these challenges will be much more difficult to bottle back up.” (See bit.ly/2NwRF7q.)

San Francisco has banned the use of facial recognition by its police force or any other municipal agency (see bit.ly/2ZuEtCc). I understand the concern that leads to this choice. However, the city is deliberately forgoing the benefits it could reap. For example, New Delhi identified 3,000 missing children in its first four-day trial of facial recognition (see bit.ly/2NyMVOL). Is San Francisco doing its best for its citizens if this is now possible, and the city refuses to use it?

The European Union’s GDPR governs facial recognition, and just levied its first violation fine. A Swedish high school was using facial recognition to automatically take attendance, with consent from students and their parents (see bit.ly/2Zs9Z84). The commission ruled that true consent was impossible in this situation, given the power imbalance between the parties. Good call? Bad call?

For better or worse, government is how our society makes these kinds of decisions. But I cringe at the thought of technologi­cally illiterate legislators regulating technology. Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of the U.S. Senate in April 2018? (You can view the highlights at youtu.be/EgI_KAkSyCw, or enjoy some of the great memes that came out of it at bit.ly/2KVuEcG.)

We, as an industry, are going to have to educate our legislators about what they’re voting on. Explaining tech to civilians is what I do—see my book, “Why Software Sucks,” and many of these columns. Accordingly, I’ve offered my services pro bono to my local U.S. Representative, Seth Moulton (D-MA 6th), to act as “tech explainer in chief.” I haven’t heard back yet. But we’re going to need a lot more of this.

I recall Winston Churchill’s classic statement that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I think we’re about to find out what he meant.

Dear readers, you’ve all heard by now of the impending shutdown of MSDN Magazine. I’m thinking of continuing this column on my own after the final issue next month. I’ve set up a new blog at davidsplatt.com, with a column ready for you right now. Please have a look, and sign up for notifications if you would be so kind. If I get 500 subscribers, I’ll keep it going. Tell your friends. And your enemies, too. Thanks.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should have taped down two of his daughter’s fingers so she would learn how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.

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