Why How-Old.net should creep you out

Last week, Microsoft’s Beta project How-Old.net, a website which estimates your age and gender, caused many laughs and shocks – while sometimes the results are more or less accurate, in other cases the difference between reality and estimation is more than two decades. It is fun to see what technology can do nowadays, but as almost always, technology in the wrong hands without supervision can be creepy.

Fair enough, you have voluntarily uploaded your picture to Microsoft, they have saved this for statistical purposes, along with your location, your gender and estimated age. Nobody knows yet, what the company will do with this data, but by now, collecting such data has become normal and doesn’t threat anyone anymore. However, this fresh version of the tool is only the beginning of recognition and identification software becoming easily available. Some airports already have automatized their face scan during the passport control – a software compares your passport picture to the image taken by a digital camera, no personal conversation with the police required anymore.

Chancellor Merkel is 60 years old, the tool guessed her age correctly
Chancellor Merkel is 60 years old, the tool guessed her age correctly

After the scandals by secret services in the USA, Germany and Great Britain, I would not be surprised if in a few years a much better functioning version of digital face scans would be used in order to track people. Tracking isn’t always something bad – you can find a lost phone, new cars have installed devices which set an emergency signal with your coordinates in case of an accident, but on the flipside, we have seen that technology can be abused. Hackers could access personal cameras (e.g. the ones on computers, laptops or smartphones) and it might even be possible that one day, cameras on public space implement face scans. If you have wandered around London once, you know that these cameras are everywhere.

While this sounds like the plot of “Furious 7”, it is quite likely that such steps will be taken. Technology and information grow exponentially, meaning faster and faster. Therefore in a few years it won’t be challenging to use digital face scans. While it can be claimed that such technologies are used for the sake of the citizens, or to protect them in the age of terror, mass tracking would mean one thing: the loss of your privacy. Only recently, France allowed their secret service to spy on their citizens without a dicision from a court – while this might be a reaction to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, it proves how easily freedom is being given up. Fine, it might be that you don’t have secrets in terms of crimes, but then secret meetings during teenage years with your crush at night would have an end, affairs in general as well, and don’t even try to pretend to be sick at work only to go to the football game you wanted to see live.

Actor Ryan Gosling is 34 years old - How-Old.net estimated him to be a year older
Actor Ryan Gosling is 34 years old – How-Old.net estimated him to be a year older

Development and progress are crucial for prosperity, they have always been, but in the case of technologies which would enable the gathering of endless personal data and more surveillance, it will be worth it to watch carefully how and by whom these new methods will be applied. Neither our legal systems, nor our mentalities evolve quickly enough to grasp the dimensions of new technological possibilities.

In case a dystopian vision of the future is too abstract, watch the funny and scaring interview of John Oliver with Edward Snowden, if you haven’t done it yet. It is a must when talking about mass surveillance.