The ‘Facezam’ App Was a Hoax, but New Technologies Still Have Many Fearing for Their Privacy

“I’m used to people recording me at this point in my career, but giving the entirety of the public easy access to my personal life and family is a risk I’m not willing to take…”

We all know those people who constantly provide too much information on their social media accounts.  Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, or LinkedIn, I have seen more than a few fellow police officers stumble into the pitfalls on various social channels.  Cop or not, it’s beneficial when we listen to our better angels before sending that tweet or putting out that Facebook post to the world. But what happens when we lose control of our own social media fate and factors beyond our control enter the equation?

This week, multiple news outlets reported that Facebook would be rolling out a new facial recognition app from the maker of the popular music app Shazam.  It was said to be called ‘Facezam,’ and the prospect of maintaining separation between the cyber-world and the real world was about to get a lot more complicated.  Initially, I reacted by throwing up my hands and saying, “That’s it! I’m done with social media!”

When I first found Shazam, the cellphone app that spits out the unknown title and artist of a song within seconds simply by recording an excerpt of it, I was amazed.  I couldn’t believe that a ten-second snippet of the song I just heard on a television commercial could be matched by audio characteristics to its full version on a massive music database faster than I could bother to run a search on Google. I read in horror this week as multiple reports warned that a new app called Facezam would use database matching software similar to Shazam, but would instead pair a single Facebook user profile on its database of almost two billion people worldwide with a simple image of the person’s face in real-time.  Sources even reported that the software boasted a 70% accuracy out of 10,000 test images, a startling efficiency rate that could do nothing but improve with time.

Thankfully, the whole thing was a hoax, fake news, and a total ruse to wind people up– but with everything we now know about Moore’s Law and the absurd speed of innovation and advancement in the tech industry, can anyone really doubt that the capabilities to execute a Facezam-like app already exist? Let’s take a look at what the world would be like if we actually do windup going down this path. What if Facezam becomes a reality?

Picture it like this: you’re out for a walk and catch the eye of a complete stranger who takes your picture with Facezam. This individual can now access you and every detail of your life that you’ve ever placed on your personal Facebook page with no real-world introduction necessary.  Like in Tom Cruise’s 2002 dystopian film Minority Report, anonymity is now a thing of the past.  Thanks to Facezam, every entity, from your local police to the sex offenders listed on your local registry, could be an eye in the sky that can track you down. As a police officer, face recognition technology mainstreamed to the general public is most certainly not all bad, but it definitely isn’t good.

Most of the societal benefits for this technology would undoubtedly relate to law enforcement investigations — at least for a while. I can imagine now how empty the inbox to my work email account would be if investigators no longer had to send out CCTV shots of robbery perps that they needed identified. Such a practice is a shot in the dark and relies on getting lucky more than anything.  With Facezam, an investigator would be able to just snap a picture of any facial image captured on a store or in-home security camera, upload it, and wallah — suspect identified. While some criminals are unquestionably intelligent and as slippery as a wet rock, others are like the bandits chasing Macaulay Culkin around in Home Alone; Facezam would be a great tool to use in catching the Harrys and Marvs of the world until even they began to routinely incorporate a mask or balaclava into their criminal activities.  In the event that law enforcement couldn’t identify the suspect, utilizing Facezam would allow investigators to develop leads, as it would make identifying and tracking down witnesses captured by cameras at the scene effortless.

Facezam could also prove useful to potential victims of crimes themselves.  If victims or bystanders could manage to snap a photo of an assailant during robberies, sexual assaults, or thefts, it would be transformative for both law enforcement and the criminal justice system.  There are multiple upstarts out now forming a cottage industry that would be heavily reliant on this technology. Check out OnCamera if you need proof of this brave new world. The upside this technology would have on criminal investigations is undeniable, but can any degree of benefit ever outweigh the complete surrendering of our expectation of privacy as a society?

Think about all the seemingly faceless strangers you come into indirect contact with every day.  In the car, you sit next to strangers stopped at red lights. As you walk freely in the streets, you rub shoulders with and pass by other pedestrians without a second thought. When you go to a restaurant, there’s a room full of waiters and diners who operate within the parameters of a social contract that does not include divulging details of personal life. If they wish to, they may – but it is their choice. The same rules apply when you are at the store shopping or out at the park with your kids. With the mass release of Facezam, those rules would be scrapped and the choice to let one’s guard down to a stranger would go flying out the window. Can you imagine the cultural shift that would result?  After all, who do you know that is not on Facebook in today’s day and age?

What made this hoax that such a wide reaching invasion of privacy was upon us so believable was that it is already a reality in Russia. The app ‘FindFace’ has existed on the country’s version of Facebook – Vkontakte – since last year. While the investigatory practices of Russian authorities are becoming more entwined with the app, one of the more nefarious uses for FindFace was for internet trolls to identify sex workers and porn actresses for harassment and to “out” them to their friends and family. Other than that, it made a fantastic tool for stalkers and perverts to keep tabs on prospective victims.  Might we see people taking increased measures such as wearing hats, sunglasses, and other face coverings to avoid being exposed to eavesdropping? I can’t help but think of how this app will make things more dangerous for police officers in “Mother Russia.”

As much as I like to help people, I’m probably not doing my job as a policeman very effectively if I don’t cause peoples’ feelings to be hurt every now and then. Whether a person is a hardened criminal, public nuisance, or simply a pain in the butt, eventually I wind up being the guy who has got to miff them by addressing it. It’s the nature of the job.  If the current trend continues, the day when Americans become completely submissive to the nanny state could actually come, and in our own lifetimes.  You can be sure that I’ll be wiping my Facebook page of the years of pictures it has accrued on that day.  I’m used to people recording me at this point in my career, but giving the entirety of the public easy access to my personal life and family is a risk I’m not willing to take.  FindFace has demonstrated that the tech already exists for any deranged lunatic, Black Lives Matter militant, vindictive ticket receiver, or worse to have an avenue to target a cop and their family with ease, if they get their hands on it. I’d even venture to guess that a sophisticated enough hacker somewhere is already using a home-made version of such tech here in the states.

These fake news stories are great at spreading fear, but every now and then they get people thinking and talking about something that had previously been ignored.  The reality is that while Facezam isn’t coming next week, it could come at some point if we don’t repel it.  Perhaps I am a relic of days gone by trying to turn back the hands of time, or maybe I’m just resistant to change or “progress” – but more of us need to know what is already out there in the world and could be coming down the pike for us here.  The unveiling of Facezam would have been the end of privacy. Did you know about it?

T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.

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