The night of December 16, 1773, dozens of Massachusetts colonists quietly boarded three ships and dumped what would now be close to $1 million worth of British tea into Boston Harbor.
The Sons of Liberty painted their faces and dressed like Native Americans. They barely spoke, to avoid revealing their identities. “There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself,” one of them wrote. It worked. Only a single person was caught.
What if the British had access to modern surveillance technology? What if they’d had access to face recognition?
From the Boston Tea Party to the printing of Common Sense, the ability to dissent—and to do it anonymously—was central to the founding of the United States. Anonymity was no luxury: It was a crime to advocate separation from the British Crown. It was a crime to dump British tea into Boston harbor. This trend persists. Our history is replete with moments when it was a “crime” to do the right thing, and legal to inflict injustice.
The latest crime-fighting tools, however, may eliminate people’s ability to be anonymous. Historically, surveillance technology has tracked our technology: our cars, our computers, our phones. Face recognition technology tracks our bodies. And unlike fingerprinting or DNA analysis, face recognition is designed to identify us from far away and in secret.