Face Value: How Biometrics Are Making the Leap from Spy Agencies to Corporate Marketing

By A Pet Rock 

So, the government is watching. It seems like sort of an established fact in America these days that law enforcement agencies are using cameras and microphones to collect the biometric information of pretty much anybody, which can then be used to pick their face or voice out of a crowd. 

Biometrics, in the sense that pundits refer to it, is basically just an idea about the kinds of things we can measure and learn from the human body. Your height and weight are at the most basic level a kind of biometric data—and they’re used quite often by medical professionals to make conclusions about your risks for different conditions or diseases. Your fingerprints are also biometric data. So is the distance between your eyes or the average volume of your voice. All of the minute information that you create without even thinking about it—the width of your mouth, the distance between your ears, the average pitch or the range of pitches in your voice, the average time of silence between each word you speak—can now be ground down into an ever finer series of numbers. This might sound a bit Big Brother and dystopian and all that, but I want to stress (before getting into the boring dystopian parts) that it doesn’t always have to be like that. Medical researchers are getting better and better at diagnosing serious illnesses like PTSD or even heart disease just from the biometric data of your voice. Like any of the technology that ultimately gets used by powerful people to stay powerful, I don’t think that biometrics are inherently evil and, really, it’s a fascinating new lens that we could look at the world through.

From the National Security Agency to the Baltimore Police Department, we know that biometrics have been used to identify and arrest (or worse) suspects at an impressive scale while surveilling predominantly Al Qaeda suspects or protesters at a Black Lives Matter march, respectively—so impressive, in fact, that it’s inspired a few editorial boards’ worth of pundits to claim that we’re living in the middle of a “biometric revolution.” This new “revolution” is being declared not just because biometrics can identify people, though, but also because it’s rapidly beginning to give surveillance agencies more information about ourselves than even we know. We can see this in the Department of Homeland Security’s new pet project, the AVATAR system, which is an automated border security agent (cute!) that promises to detect whether or not you’re likely to behave deceptively before gaining entry through a U.S. border. (I’ll give you one guess as to which border they’re testing it out on.) 

But if you thought that corporations were going to let governments have all the fun, you’re sorely mistaken. Despite not even being included in many conversations about biometric surveillance (go figure), the private sector is where a lot of this technology developed and, I’m convinced, where a lot of it is going. Industries are being established rapidly by companies like Amazon for the collection and application of data produced by the human body. I believe that the commodification of biometrics is going to be a more and more important part of capitalism as powerful institutions think they can learn more and more about us from just a short clip of our faces or voices. It’s important for anti-capitalists to understand the growing challenges (as well as opportunities) that this “biometric revolution” presents as it changes the way we think about our relationships with technology, data, and our very selves.

But corporations in particular have been gobbling up all this talk of biometrics and (shocker) they’re not so interested in that feel-good, curing-cancer-with-your-face stuff. Rather, some of the largest software and advertising companies in the world have spent the last decade scrambling to figure out exactly how the data from your face or your voice can help them make even more money. This mainly involves acquiring our data, i.e. recording us, and then trying to figure out which bits of data line up most consistently with whatever spending habits or personal characteristics these companies can profit off of. The actual accuracy of this process is obviously questionable and open to criticisms of bias (of which it’s already received quite a few). In general, a lot of the algorithms I’ve looked at really aren’t that more accurate than a human trying to figure out if you have heart disease or if you’re lying from looking at your face—the real innovation of the biometric revolution is simply that it can now apply this process to thousands and thousands of people at once.

A lot of this will, of course, be used on employees—and, in fact, it already is. As Tom Simonite reported for Wired, customer service representatives for MetLife have their interactions with customers monitored and corrected in real time. For example, if a rep is feeling a bit tired after being yelled at by yet another purple-faced, fat-necked suburban psychopath and their voice starts to reflect that during their next call, they’ll be prompted by their employer’s computer software to “smile but with their voice” a bit more. There are also currently companies that are using biometric data to promise a more rigorous interview process for workers; AC Global Risk, for example, emerged in 2016 with the claim that their proprietary software would allow employers to detect “risk” posed to the company by applicants just from the sound of their voice. As they go on to explain, this essentially functions as a subtle loyalty test and screens out any workers who can’t be trusted with sensitive information (according to their algorithm). In doing so, they explicitly name-check Edward Snowden as a whistleblower case they could have prevented, which is an “Are we the baddies?” moment if I’ve ever heard one—and also could mean even more intimate scrutiny of workers in the future.

Much of the growth in this technology, though, seems to me to be in the realm of consumer advertising. There’s Nuance Communications, the company that designed the speech recognition system used by the original Siri, now designing a car that thinks it can tell from your voice when you want Chinese food; there’s also NICE, an Israeli software company that sells software that claims to sort the world into one of five supposedly universal personalities that all require different marketing approaches; and of course there’s dear old Amazon, which has been aggressively selling its voice assistants that sit on your bookshelf and silently suck up everything you say to them so that they can recommend the right brand of chicken noodle soup (while also casually selling its facial recognition technology to police departments, which is Very Cool And Definitely Don’t Worry About It). More and more, these companies—which, I think it’s worth noting, generally have no actual fucking product beyond the data that they own and manipulate—claim to be capable of knowing our genders, ethnicities, personalities, emotions, and desires from the process of capturing and dissecting our data like a lab specimen. I can’t emphasize enough how passive this process has become. This avalanche of examination and sales pitch after sales pitch after sales pitch after sales pitch after sales pitch can all be kicked off by simply looking into a camera or speaking into a microphone, both of which we pretty much all carry around in our pockets nowadays. Software companies and data brokers are pitching more and more intimate classifications of the entire population from less and less input on our parts.

And I think a lot of this might ultimately change how people think about capitalism. I know that the power of this technology has already received a fair amount of attention in the media from all sides of the political spectrum. It also ties more deeply into conversations about how capitalism has monopolized the internet, as the U.S. continues to puzzle over why we made Mark Zuckerberg, a horny Harvard dropout, the guardian of our data. I think anti-capitalists would benefit from jumping on these conversations—especially as data, biometric or otherwise, becomes an increasingly integral part of everyone’s life at all points on the socioeconomic spectrum. In a lot of ways, biometric markets are the stuff that Marx was writing about, but on the kinds of growth hormones that we wouldn’t even give to animals. Labor as a commodity? Brain. Your face as a commodity? Galaxy brain. That’s not to trivialize the struggles of workers—as I mentioned, biometrics will probably harm them most directly, and it’s important to start organizing against this early and often. At the same time, biometric markets move well beyond the idea of a person selling themselves as an object to an Amazon warehouse. Rather, biometric markets allow companies to sell people’s bodies as objects when they’re not really thinking of themselves as workers. Talking on the phone with a customer service rep? You are an object. Video-calling on WhatsApp? You are an object. Walking by a closed-circuit TV camera in public? You are an object. Thinking out loud when you’re at home with your phone literally anywhere near you? You are an object. You are an object. You are an object. You are an object. You are an object on a market whose ultimate goal is more deeply entangling you inside itself, along with every other person it comes in contact with, until it swallows the world and smacks its lips.

Some people might read this and still think, “So? This is how capitalism has always functioned.” I actually agree with this point (which is why I’ve oh-so-cleverly inserted it in my essay). But at the same time, I think biometrics makes more of this market logic bare for people to see in some important ways. While companies have justified their increasing intrusion into the lives of ordinary people for the past several decades by promising that all this control they have over you will get you more of the stuff you want, biometrics reveals what they actually want. By attempting to learn the desires of their customers not from the actual stated preferences of those customers or even from the actions of customers but rather from the bodies of customers—the literal physical objects that we’re made of—businesses reveal that they have no actual interest in making our lives better on our terms. Baked into the ways they use the data from our voices or our faces or our DNA are the assumptions that they make about the way they want the world to be. We’re all just abstractions to them, gold doubloons held inside a coin purse of flesh, and I think the biometric revolution reveals that more clearly than any marketing strategy in the past century. They’re finally capable of applying the coercion and behavior modification they’ve maintained for decades over workers’ bodies to the whole population—anyone with a smartphone, which is basically everyone—at all times. What matters to companies is not what you want—but rather what you are. You are an object. Biometrics makes this basic fact clear not only to workers but to everyone who interacts with smart devices, middle-class and upper-class Americans included.

It’s easy to see this “revolution” resolving itself in a way that returns us more or less to the status quo. Nothing new under the sun. People grumble about their fingerprints, and Jimmy Fallon makes some joke about Facebook owning your face. Governments pass a law saying that businesses have to ask you permission every time they want to use your voice to sell you a pizza. Biometrics become less profitable and dwindle to a cottage industry (while still being used on workers, of course). Life sucks and slouches onward. Biometrics could also get more invasive from here as well, of course. But I think that, regardless of how it turns out, we might benefit from seeing in the early stages of this industry shift that it represents an opportunity for communicating the importance of anti-capitalism to more people as their lives and bodies become more measured, calculated, controlled by the corporations that already dominate so many vital areas of their existence. Biometric markets provide a wedge for anti-capitalists when they’re talking with workers or friends or their cousin-who-voted-for-Trump that they can use to show what’s been happening all along to workers. They can talk about how having to be a commodity when you just want to play an iPhone game sucks, and they can talk about how some of the people for whom it’s sucked the longest in this particular way are the poor of this country. By focusing on the ways that capitalism increasingly harms everyone, they might even convince others that the only world where we don’t have to become objects in order to survive is a world where capital (among other things) doesn’t exist.

. . .

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1 Comment

  1. Very interesting. I think it’s also crucial we understand how Blockchain identity and digital benefit systems will intersect with “smart” city surveillance, social credit scoring, and behavioral geofencing. Right now our education systems are being held hostage to STEM instruction to create the workers who will code this “mixed reality world.” I think it’s going to be very important to convince folks NOT to code this new empire, but many of the people doing this work will be doing under systems of containment and incarceration. So this also factors into the prison abolition movement, too. This is a post I put up earlier this week. https://wrenchinthegears.com/2019/10/07/vanquishing-the-windigo-standing-up-to-marc-tucker-and-digital-capitalism/

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