“Function Creep” is another example of how something that moves with glacial speed and suddenly inspires a lighting reaction, and one that often happens in between an epiphany and the sinking realisation it’s too late to stop it.

Over the past decade or more, technology giants have been quietly going about the business of harvesting more and more details about us, right down to our innermost thoughts and desires. Organisations such as Google and Facebook have developed such sophisticated algorithms that they can interpret our very words into emotions without the nuances of body language and tone of voice. These two elements, it seems, have been replaced by use of emojis and even something as simple as capitalised letters and specific punctuation.

While the realisation that our outward essence conveyed in pictures, videos, and text has been commoditised, analysed, and sold to anyone with the money seeking to exploit it is disturbing, it pales in comparison to the next “function creep”.

We’ve long since become blasé about being captured on camera any time we are outside of the comfort of our homes (and with function creep seeping into households, that’s questionable) but perhaps its time to take notice. Our image is captured dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times a day from CCTV at banks and shops to appearing in the background of strangers home videos and need for social media validation through selfies. Like it or not, our digital shadow grows by the millisecond.

At a macro level, we’re assured by authorities these digital replicas are necessary to keep us secure, to combat terrorism, and to keep public order. At a smaller level, it makes daily life a bit easier through use of License Plate Recognition in car parks or when passing through customs at the airport. It’s the micro level where I’m concerned.  Facial recognition in the name of public safety is good, but now we’re seeing that very same biometric technology exploited in the name of rampant consumerism.

It's fair to say that most stores have installed cameras to combat crime from theft to unacceptable behaviour, but what else can that very same technology be used for? Could the owners of those shops, through facial recognition recognise a loyal customer and reward them? Or instead, would they try to analyse their behaviour and movements to manipulate them into spending more money? Maybe even share that information with business partners to appeal to the interests of that customer? Sounds more creep than function to me.

Where will the line be drawn? I think that’s up to us and not the users (dare I say abusers) of the technology. Imagine, for example, that upon entering a shopping centre your image is captured and you are identified. In the background, a whole lot of harvested data is linked and the stores with a vested interest in you interests are alerted. You suddenly start receiving alerts on your mobile that your favourite electronics store is having a sale on a specific brand you like, the café in the food court is having a special on your favourite sandwich, and hey, the chemist has some more of that “special ointment” for your little issue!

Let’s suppose that your mobile isn’t on so you don’t get the alerts. Next minute, random strangers start approaching you to come into their stores. They know you by name, they know your interests. Hell, they might even know your secrets and try to manipulate you. When do we cross the line of promotion, manipulation, and extortion?

Here is another example. From my perspective, drones are pretty cool in that they can capture views that, until recently, were the domain of well-financed people with a helicopter or airplane at their disposal or for those crazy enough to attach cameras to body flying machines. For a small investment, and a little practice, anyone can become a hovering cinematographer, capturing anything, anywhere, any time. Enter our friend “Function Creep” again.

Where I live, I frequently see drones buzzing by over the water and legal matters notwithstanding, I don’t think they’re quite as cool anymore. It seems the operators of these things care little about the matter of flying over people, operating in the airspace of a local aerodrome, or disturbing our local osprey. They seem to care even less about privacy.

Now, combine the ability to have facial recognition on a drone and you’ve got a serious invasion of privacy. Instead of randomly peering into windows, the operator could conceivably identify people in a compromising situation, even in the privacy of their own home and then the nefarious things they can do with the data is limitless.

Google the internet for “hacked IP cameras” and “hacked webcams” and you will quickly find there are a wealth of feeds, live or not, where those on display go about their lives unbeknownst to who may be watching. Imagine if this capability was combined with facial recognition and life could get pretty scare for someone is a big hurry.

It’s fair to say that it’s not so much about the technologies by itself, but rather combining them. Also interesting is that technology is perfect; it does exactly what we tell it to, so if the developers of the tech make a mistake, the machine will simply follow orders. It’s that ghost in the machine that makes technology vulnerable to abuse.

Even at that, it doesn’t have to be exploited to be problematic. Simply adopting a few functions together for something as simple as marketing can be problematic. Setting this up at a car dealership is one thing; using it at a store that markets to the 18+ crowd is something else. All things considered, I have a few points to ponder.

·      What about government regulation of the technology? Will it be restricted to government for security purposes or available to commercial entities for use in sales and marketing? Who will enforce this with traditional law enforcement already having enough on their plates? Expansion of powers or forces require additional resources (read: taxes) to make it happen.

·      What about private investigators or others that seek to track people? While it may be good for bounty hunters, it could be bad for privacy (i.e. stalking, divorces, custody battles, and other human conflict that takes a deeply emotional toll).

·      Private individuals – anyone with the money could purchase and use the tech and pair it with technology such as drones, etc. If someone has the skills, time, and money and a blatant disregard for morals and ethics, the world opens up to anyone seeking to discover and exploit information.

·      Let’s consider the aggregation of data. There are multiple points available that can all be linked despite coming from several unrelated or unlinked sources. Could this all add up to be a really big issue?

·      Inevitably, there will be flaws in the system. Would there be a standard of service to adhere to or would there be a bigger margin of error for cheaper solutions? Think of the difference between, “It looks kind of like him” and “It is absolutely him”.

·      How do we go about clawing back that data or controlling it? Our very essence has become digitised and our analogue selves are but containers. Once it’s out there, it’s out there for anyone to access, manipulate, distribute, and sell to the highest bidder.

·      How about identity theft and other means to exploit the system. Where does Sci-Fi intersect with reality? We’ve probably all watched enough of those dystopian futuristic movies featuring the movie star of the day who miraculously saves humanity. Does fantasy inspire reality or vice-versa?

·      Let’s even go out on a limb. What about cloning? Could that ever enter into an aspect of function creep enabled by technology?

Food for thought. Stay safe out there!

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog are my own and not those of any associated third party.  The content is provided for general information, educational, and entertainment purposes and does not constitute legal advice or recommendations; it must not be relied upon as such.  Appropriate legal advice should be obtained in actual situations.  All images, unless otherwise credited, are licensed through ShutterStock

For this Article: Photo by Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash

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