The Orwellian surveillance state and facial recognition technology

surveillance state facial recognition technology

Ever since Islamic terrorists hijacked several airliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Republicans and Democrats have used the tragedy to create advanced technologies designed to build an Orwellian surveillance state. One of these advancements is facial recognition technology.

Since that fateful day, our overlords in Washington have been pushing a liberty-killing agenda that bears a frightening resemblance to the world George Orwell described in his novel, 1984. Just like Big Brother, federal and local governments have taken steps to control our thoughts, limit our speech, and identify criminal behavior even before a crime is committed.

The creation of a surveillance state via facial recognition technology sounds exactly like the face-scanning technology used by The Party to identify a “facecrime” against the state, as Orwell described in his novel:

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.

The Party’s surveillance tactics and technology are so advanced that even the smallest twitch can betray a rebellious spirit.

– 1984, Book 1, Chapter 5, George Orwell

In July 2019, concerns were raised about the dangerous threat to liberty caused by facial recognition technology, and in a hearing before Congress officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) defended government’s use of facial recognition technology in airports and border areas.

According to John Wagner with the CBP, the face-scanning project known as Biometric Entry/Exit was “absolutely not a surveillance program.” An ironic claim considering that the Congressional hearing was being held due to government’s ability to do just that.

During the hearings, a coalition of 35 organizations led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center sent a letter to Congress calling for a halt the use of facial recognition technology on the general public due to the threat it posed to privacy and civil liberties.

“The use of face recognition technology by DHS poses serious risks to privacy and civil liberties, threatens immigrants, broadly impacts American citizens, and has been implemented without proper safeguards in place or explicit Congressional approval.

“Congress should not permit the continued use of face recognition in the United States, absent safeguards to prevent such abuses.”

Alas, Big Brother Washington isn’t all that concerned about trivial matters such as privacy and liberty, not when there’s a surveillance state to be built. So when all was said and done, liberty was sacrificed and facial recognition technology continued to be developed.

Over the past few years, facial recognition technology has grown in popularity at the state and local levels of government; especially with law enforcement. And just like the federal government version, liberty has been sacrificed on the altar of the surveillance state.

According to a article by Contributing Editor J.D Tuccille, law enforcement and other local authorities have been using (and abusing) the technology for years.

Clearview AI carved out a market niche for itself as a provider of facial recognition tools for law enforcement agencies that find the technology challenging to implement on their own. The company’s plug-and-play surveillance capability entices government users with free trial periods and a database of billions of faces scraped without permission from social media. According to a new report, the technology has been used by more agencies than previously disclosed, sometimes without authorization. The report may not be complete, since many police departments belong to networks for sharing resources.

“BuzzFeed News has developed a searchable table of 1,803 publicly funded agencies whose employees are listed in the data as having used or tested the controversial policing tool before February 2020. These include local and state police, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Air Force, state healthcare organizations, offices of state attorneys general, and even public schools,” the publication noted this week. The data was leaked to Buzzfeed by a source whose identity is being kept secret.

Uses to which the tool was put included searches for protesters, criminals—and friends and family members. Inappropriate searches on acquaintances could have been predicted by anybody aware of the abuse of official databases for curiosity and personal gain. “Police officers across the country misuse confidential law enforcement databases to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons that have nothing to do with daily police work,” the AP reported in 2016. A massive facial recognition database is an enormous temptation for unscrupulous government employees already accustomed to misusing such tools. (emphasis mine)

Coronavirus hysteria has made the surveillance state and facial recognition technology even more popular now that it has been refined to focus on the eyes and noses of masked faces:

Facial recognition, like any automated means of identifying and tracking people, is something of a holy grail for cops and intelligence community types. The technology’s accuracy has improved, too, especially during the pandemic as algorithms have been refined to focus on eyes and noses unconcealed by facial coverings.

“Without masks, median system performance demonstrated a ~93% identification rate, with the best-performing system correctly identifying individuals ~100% of the time,” the Department of Homeland Security boasted in January. “With masks, median system performance demonstrated a ~77% identification rate, with the best-performing system correctly identifying individuals ~96% of the time.”

Government continues to provide bogus assurances that tracking technologies like facial recognition won’t lead to a surveillance state and that it will only be used for security purposes, but a recent study conducted by Scientific Reports shows how the technology is capable of doing exactly what George Orwell described in excerpt from 1984 I provided above.

Pervasive surveillance is not the only risk brought about by facial recognition. Apart from identifying individuals, the algorithms can identify individuals’ personal attributes, as some of them are linked with facial appearance. Like humans, facial recognition algorithms can accurately infer gender, age, ethnicity, or emotional state. Unfortunately, the list of personal attributes that can be inferred from the face extends well beyond those few obvious examples.

When it comes to the assault on liberty and our constitutional rights, I’m reminded of a quote from the C.S. Lewis novel, The Screwtape Letters, where Screwtape is giving his nephew Wormword advice on how to lead his subjects to hell:

“Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

America was put on the “safe[ty] road” when Islamic terrorists attacked us, giving the government a perfect opportunity to destroy liberty and freedom in the name of safety and security . . . nearly 20 years ago.


David Leach is the owner of the Strident Conservative. He holds people of every political stripe accountable for their failure to uphold conservative values, and he promotes those values instead of political parties.

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