Every day, people like you and me share things online with little thought toward long-term implications. Heck, I’m doing it right now. In the early 2000’s, prior to the pervasiveness of social media, the idea of an open internet where one could build websites, share pictures and other content without barriers was a quaint reality that was full of possibilities and promise. Filmmaker Brett Gaylor (RIP: A Remix Manifesto, Do Not Track) has always been fascinated with the idea of this possibility.
In his new short-form documentary Discriminator, Gaylor turns his eye towards photo sharing and it’s developing consequences and implications as entities – governments, defense contractors, and corporations of all kinds – have found ways to use the gigantic databases of online photo albums to ‘teach’ software to recognize faces and, worryingly, much more.
The hook for Discriminator is that it’s interactive, and you’ll be asked to turn on your webcam or phone camera in order to get the full experience. Using capture technology, the film will recognize your face (don’t worry, nothing is stored permanently) and use it to illustrate some of the most high-tech facial recognition strategies currently being employed around the world.
As Gaylor, who narrates Discriminator, describes his own hopes for the early internet and the freedom he felt to share dozens of his personal photos, which you can also freely peruse yourself at one point, he uses the capture technology to apply AR filters and animation to your own face, which hurtles what would otherwise come off as a high-tech TED Talk into horror territory, at least for me. Gaylor’s reassuring voice can’t mask the implications of what he’s saying; that millions of photos online are being used to train AI software for a myriad of purposes, both benign and insidious (or a mix of both), and often without explicit consent. The examples Gaylor provides are the Russian government using facial recognition to identify people with criminal records to exclude them from sporting events, or the use of similar technology to identify people who have tested positive for COVID-19, and those who have not yet been vaccinated.
Perhaps it’s my own paranoia about such things, but I find the effect and implications of the technology described in Discriminator quite chilling, especially the fact that the genie is very much out of the bottle. The largest corporations, including Google (whose services I am using to write this very article), Yahoo, and many others are already heavily invested in the procurement and development of both facial-recognition software and the vast, worldwide database of photographs that are used as inputs for that software.
If you’d like to experience Discriminator for yourself, put your trust in your webcam and check it out at this link.