Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What has Facebook and the criminals of Sydney 1912 got in common?

Facebook hit two milestones this week. Firstly, VP of Facebook Europe, Joanna Shields, announced that 30 million UK citizens were now on the service. That’s half the population of Britain.

Secondly, web security firm, Sophos, declared that Facebook had secretly rolled out their facial recognition software to Europe. The USA had it in December. This software programme scans all uploaded pictures and checks them against a database of names. They say it’s ‘to help subscribers relieve the boredom of tagging names to their snaps.’

Nothing nefarious going on there, then. Perfectly above board, I hear you cry.

So, half the population of the UK are on a facial recognition database in America. Soon followed, no doubt, by the rest of Europe. Facebook knows who you are. Google street view knows where you live. Apple’s iPhone GPS knows where you’ve been. Where IS George Orwell when you need him?

Of course, face spotting has been going on since the caves. In a split second our clever brains sort the bad monkeys from the good ones as a necessary survival skill. Like Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) in “Lie to Me” who knows what people are thinking even before they do. Something inherent in us sets off a precautionary warning. And sometimes it’s wrong. Looking at police mug shots somehow preconditions us to believe the person in them must be bad. Poor old Hugh Grant looked less than glam in his LA police mugshot.

This reminded me of a wonderful book called “City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912 - 1948.”

The Australian Historic Houses Trust rescued from a flood a vast collection of forensic crime photographic glass plates created by the New South Wales Police of that era. Author Peter Doyle turned them into a fascinating book.

These monochrome pictures of the backstreet pimps, pushers, conmen and working girls of Sydney spring alive on the page. They are both fascinating and noir. Viewing them they force a reaction from that bit of the brain that ‘judges’ others by using natures original facial recognition software.

You can buy it HERE:

And see the pictures HERE:

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