The Gist: Saving Face

Once again, the Government really wants to bring in laws for the police to use Facial Recognition Technology. Once agin, it won't happen. This is the Gist.

The Gist: Saving Face

In 1956, Isaac Azimov published a short story called "The Dead Past". It centres on the efforts of an historian to gain access to a strangely-restricted machine for viewing events in the past. He wants to see Carthage, his area of academic interest. The government has the only 'chronoscope' in the world, and it refuses his request.

In response, he secretly teams up with two other programmatic characters and builds one himself. He finds it can't see Carthage at all. But it is able to show anything that's happened less than a second ago. The chronoscope is a universal privacy-destroying machine. The Government agent who catches up with the secret research team too late explains what they have really done;

When people think of the past, they think of it as dead, far away and gone, long ago. . . . [But] when did [the past] begin? A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago? Isn’t it obvious that the past begins an instant ago? The dead past is just another name for the living present.

This week, the Irish Department of Justice announced, again, plans to allow for the police to use facial recognition technology. And this time, they assured us, they would limit their attentions to the dead past.

The nature of the original plans were made clear by the Minister for Justice in 2021 in a speech to the Garda Representative Association;

“As well as helping to identify suspects in a crowd, it will also be able to exonerate innocent people by showing they were elsewhere at the time of a crime”

Simon Coveney later wrote to the UN, after its representatives expressed their concerns that Ireland was advancing dangerous batshit notions, and went further, confirming;

“It is proposed to introduce both retrospective and live facial recognition facilities into An Garda Síochána.”

This earlier plan- to run this system on live video feeds- was stymied in July by a combination of political resistance by the Green party in Government and the fact that it was so blatantly illegal. Only the former of these objections was determinative of its abandonment.

But then the Minister for Justice and the Gardaí were left flat-footed by the riot in Dublin in November. As explained in Yes, Minister, at times of crisis politicians are inclined to logical fallacy-

"Something must be done, this is Something, therefore I must do it."

So, hence the return of Facial Recognition technology. It may have had absolutely no function in preventing the riot (or investigating it), but it does have the benefit of being the Something (a piece of recently drafted and reluctantly abandoned legislation increasing police powers) which happens to be on the shelf and to hand.

The riots were caused by difficult social, political and policing errors and problems which will require complex and lengthy responses if they are to be addressed. That is no kind of fun to announce, if you're a Minister under pressure. Much better to reach for the Argos catalog of surveillance and declare the problem addressed. Technical solutionism applied to public policy.

The argument now is that this plan is different to the previous, strangled, one. The key difference is that the Government is now saying it will only use the facial surveillance systems 'retrospectively'.

However, so far, we haven't had any definition of how 'retrospective' use of video footage would be defined. Is it, as in Azimov's story, "A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago?".

Without that question being addressed, none of the Government's current plans will survive contact with EU law. This is kabuki legislation, stylised gestures towards Fine Gael's tattered self-image as a party of order as authoritarian power. They know this themselves, as the announcement press release from the Minister concedes in its last paragraph;

The Minister also noted the progress being made at European level in relation to the AI Act and said that new legislation would be drafted fully in line with the requirements of EU law. When the agreed final text is available, any necessary amendments required, will be made during the drafting process.

In the meantime, I suppose it might be worthwhile remembering just how dire was the sci-fi world which failed to realise that watching the dead past on video was always, also, going to irrevocably destroy the living present. Azimov’s story ends with a bleak curse aimed at the characters who bring it about.

Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever.