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Biometric laser systems are here. Where is the responsible control?


facial recognition surveillance crowds

Imagine a kid playing connect-the-dots, racing along to reveal, maybe, a duckling or a fire truck or a flower. But this time the finished puzzle is a terrifying image from the child’s deepest fears.

That is not a kid who is going to connect dots again for some time.

People have been asked to connect a lot of dots in a lot of puzzles in the last few decades, and scary images have significantly outnumbered ducks. Burned out, many people have given up on puzzles, and that is a problem.

Biometric surveillance is a puzzle that requires much attention right now because there are no meaningful guardrails to guide it. Illinois’ Biometric Information Protection Act is supposed to be a beacon, but it is clumsy, very incomplete and one Supreme Court decision away from oblivion.

The dots of one sub-puzzle have been connected in a Quillette essay by Art Keller, an ex-CIA case officer and Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm. The title of his essay is Could an Invisible Military Laser Steal Your Privacy? Everyone in the biometrics industry knows the answer to that question.

Keller makes his point through Jetson, a heartprint biometric surveillance tool created for the U.S. Special Operations Command (part of the Department of Defense).

Jetson, which reportedly left the lab bench some time ago, employs an IR laser to identify people from 200 meters, or about 700 feet, with 95 percent accuracy in five seconds by reading the movement of a person’s body as blood is pumped through it.

Biometric Update reported on this topic in January 2020, but Keller reports that development began in 2010 by Ideal Innovations and Washington University.

His essay drops enough names and government acronyms to leave a broad trail for others to follow and fact check. And it reads like a political thriller, which is natural; he is also a published novelist.

The article begins with his memory of a 2006 incident during his time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Keller talks about how he “lusted” for enough hard data to assassinate (or order the assassination of, it is not clear) a man suspected of being a major figure in al Qaeda.

Without certainty, no action was taken, and other crimes were committed by the person he was after. There is a case officer’s detachment to the recollection, but it seems apparent in reading the essay through that if he had had working Jetson technology and a good rifle, he would have pulled the trigger without a second thought.

His target here is not to warn about Jetson as such.

Keller is focused on how out-of-hand surveillance can get with lasers recording heartbeats undetected and linking that datapoint to face-scraped biometric databases using facial recognition algorithms written by companies and scientists who actually may not have an overwhelming motivation to push for accuracy beyond white cis males.

And putting all of that power in the hands of a village police chief using a surveillance subscription. Or a billionaire with his own private space program.

Keller’s point is that many more dots in this puzzle have to involve public attention, corporate responsibility and effective government guidance.

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