How Facial Recognition Could Tear Us Apart

Will the new tech create a safer society — or a dystopian panopticon?

Jon Christian
Published in
7 min readJul 17, 2018
Tests on facial recognition technology at Berlin’s Suedkreuz station began in August 2017. Photo by Steffi Loos/Getty

IImagine that you could open an app, while you’re riding on the subway or sitting at a bar, that could tell you everything about everyone sitting around you. Using facial recognition software, it could tap into social networks and databases to show you each person’s name and occupation. It could tell you whether you share mutual friends or common interests. It could even pull up their financial or criminal records. The potential for abuse is so dire, even Microsoft’s president recently called on the government to regulate the technology.

Judith Donath, a social technology researcher who has spent decades studying online culture at MIT and Harvard, believes this sort of advanced facial recognition technology is inevitable. But whether it turns into the ultimate icebreaker or a digital panopticon, she says, is entirely up to us.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Medium: In 10 years’ time, where will we be with facial recognition technology?

Judith Donath: I think we’re going to see facial recognition become quite commonplace. If you go on Facebook and your face is recognized in a photograph, that’s the same technology that will probably go into some type of augmented reality application that, when you walk down the street or you sit in a restaurant or you’re at a party, will give you the ability to identify the people around you.

Part of what’s important to understand about facial recognition is that the recognizing is only sort of the key. The treasure inside — or the demon inside, depending on how you look at it — is the database of information that it then lets you access about the people around you.

What will that mean for individual people?

I think it will very easily become a norm — that you’re expected to have that sort of recognition ability enabled if you’re out in public, much the same way that, for a variety of reasons, we’re very uncomfortable around people who are completely masked in public. The bans…



Jon Christian

Jon Christian is a writer based in Massachusetts.