Just another day in Orwellian paradise

Orwellian double-speak dominating climate discussion : Renew Economy

Orwell had a knack for observation that has kept much of his writing alive throughout the decades. He did, after all, outline eloquently the ways in which overt fascism is doomed for failure before history provided some of its most spectacular examples. Furthermore, Orwell told us that same fascism, hidden more cleverly by the dumbing of language and its use by elites as a tool for propaganda, could proliferate without casual observers—the proletariat, if you will— ever noticing.

The author’s closing in Animal Farm provides a warning. Comforted by lofty promises of well-being and security, the book closes with its characters unable to differentiate between their oppressors and their liberators.

Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

And how about this excerpt from 1984, with its stern warnings of a government that would seek to prevent its demise by attempting to predict the future actions of its subordinates: “We understand the human much better than other humans understand each other.”

Actually, I’ve misled you. The chilling and distinctly Orwellian utterance I’ve attributed to 1984 is actually a quote pulled from a recent article published by The Washington Post. It comes from a company that, like Orwell, believes everyone has the face he deserves. And like a feature of an Orwellian plot, the company also believes that some of us could be criminally prosecuted for the things our faces tell its computer algorithms.

The company, an Israeli startup called Faceception, claims it can determine with 80 percent accuracy all manner of things about a person just by running facial features through its computer program.

“Our personality is determined by our DNA and reflected in our face. It’s a kind of signal,” the company’s chief executive Shai Gilboa told The Post.

According to the newspaper, the company claims “its technology also can be used to identify everything from great poker players to extroverts, pedophiles, geniuses and white collar-criminals.”

A look at Faceception’s website reveals that it got its start analyzing facial features for commercial purposes. It boasts Sears and a handful of major digital advertising and talent agencies as clients.

But the company now says it has at least one homeland security contract to help officials ferret out terrorists and other government threats based on facial features alone.

It isn’t clear which government the company is contracting with at the moment. But we do know that the U.S. government has invested significantly in facial recognition technology over the years.

The FBI has been compiling a massive biometric database since at least 1999, which includes “23 million front-facing photographs that can be used to identify suspects without human intervention.”

And the massive photo database isn’t just made up convicted criminals’ mug shots. According to NextGov, the agency hangs on to “data from people fingerprinted for jobs, licenses, military or volunteer service, background checks, security clearances, and naturalization, among other government processes.”

And the agency wants the records kept secret because if people begin demanding the government stop sifting through their biometric information, it could lose the ability to “establish patterns” that could lead it to criminals. Earlier this month, FBI officials proposed that the database should be made exempt from legislation requiring government agencies to share information they collect on individuals with those persons to allow for a fair chance to verify or correct information.

Why? Because agency officials argue that it is “impossible to know in advance what information is accurate, relevant, timely and complete” for “authorized law enforcement purposes.”

“With time, seemingly irrelevant or untimely information may acquire new significance when new details are brought to light,” the FBI said, adding that transparency would harm its abilities of “establishing patterns of activity.”

In other words, the FBI would be a prime customer for Faceception’s Orwellian capabilities.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg considering the government’s dragnet digital communications surveillance. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that your likeness is in some such database if you’ve ever used facial recognition software on social media, placed a picture of yourself online or even walked down a public street in a major metropolitan area

So what’s the end result of all this? It’s difficult to know for sure. But because I began with a quote from Orwell, perhaps it would be fitting to end with one.

This time (truly) an excerpt from 1984:

[H]e began thinking of the things that would happen to him after the Thought Police took him away. It would not matter if they killed you at once. To be killed was what you expected. But before death (nobody spoke of such things, yet everybody knew of them) there was the routine of confession that had to be gone through: the grovelling on the floor and screaming for mercy, the crack of broken bones, the smashed teeth, and bloody clots of hair. Why did you have to endure it, since the end was always the same? Why was it not possible to cut a few days or weeks out of your life? Nobody ever escaped detection, and nobody ever failed to confess. When once you had succumbed to thoughtcrime it was certain that by a given date you would be dead. Why then did that horror, which altered nothing, have to lie embedded in future time?

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