The real dangers of facial recognition: mass obedience and online labor exploitation

Facial recognition is a scam, but that doesn’t mean we should underestimate the threat it poses to freedom and fundamental human rights.

Case in point: Russian media MBKh discovered that Moscow police officers illegally “monetize” footage of 175,000 surveillance cameras on forums and messenger groups. For the equivalent of 470$, anyone can have access to facial recognition lookup services that, when provided with the picture of an individual, match it with passerby from hundreds of cameras, along with a list of addresses and times they were caught on camera. 

Interestingly enough, face recognition tech *does not work*, and the journalist has to grudgingly admit its low accuracy:

“As for the accuracy of the results, none of the photos returned were of the investigator. However, the facial features were similar to the input and the system assessed a similarity of 67%.”

According to the journalist, the explanation for this suboptimal performance is “the limited number of cameras connected to the face recognition algorithm”. Apparently, the sample is too small, but the technology is not fundamentally called into question…

Another explanation (often ignored by journalists, ever ready to believe the AI hype and therefore disregard its actual dangers) is introduced by a 2018 New York Times coverage of China’s surveillance-industrial complex: mass surveillance systems are not automated per se and are largely based on the intervention of crowds of micro-workers who cherry-pick millions of videos, cut out silhouettes of individual and tag metadata, fill in databases and annotate information:

“The system remains more of a digital patchwork than an all-seeing technological network. Many files still aren’t digitized, and others are on mismatched spreadsheets that can’t be easily reconciled. Systems that police hope will someday be powered by A.I. [emphasis added] are currently run by teams of people sorting through photos and data the old-fashioned way.”

“The old-fashioned way” here means “by hand”… Data annotation, triage, enrichment, especially for the computer vision models underlying face recognition algorithms, is a blossoming market. Recent research by Bonnie Nardi, Hamid Ekbia, Mary Gray, Sid Suri, Janine Berg, Six Silberman, Florian Schmidt, Trevor Paglen, Kate Crawford, Paola Tubaro and myself witnesses its development in sectors as diverse as home automation, transportation, advertising, health, entertainment… and the military. It is based on a workforce of hundreds of million of online laborers, alternatively called microworkers or crowdworkers. They work long hours, with precarious contracts and exploitative working conditions, and are paid very low wages (in some cases less than a cent per micro-task). Although they are attested in the global North, they are predominantly based in developing and emerging economies—such as Russia and China. But the companies that recruit them to package their annotated data and resell it as surveillance technologies, are mainly located in so-called liberal democracies. Despite the Chinese market supremacy, US, French, Japanese, Israeli and Finnish corporations are spreading these technologies all over the world, according to the 2019 AI Global Surveillance Index.

Despite the importance of these “humans in the loop” that constitute the secret ingredients of AI-based technological innovation, the threats of facial recognition, smart cities and predictive policing must not be minimized. The glorification of AI turns it into a powerful psychological deterrent and a disciplinary device. “The whole point,” explains an expert interviewed by the New York Times, “is that people don’t know if they’re being monitored, and that uncertainty makes them more obedient.”

Any action aimed to fight against the alleged omnipotence of these technologies begins with the recognition of their fictitious nature. If automated surveillance is made up of men and women who train, control and impersonate “artificial artificial intelligence“, it is from the awareness of their role in a dystopian and inhuman system that a change is going to come.

[Video] “Negotiating privacy: a digital labor?” (Manufacturing Transparency conference, UC Berkeley, Oct 28, 2015)

On October 28, 2015 I was invited to deliver a keynote presentation at the Manufacturing Transparency conference, organized by the Berkeley Center for New Media, University of California Berkeley. My presentation, Negotiating privacy and transparency: a digital labor?, was mainly based on my books Against the Hypothesis of the End of Privacy (Springer, 2014) and Qu’est-ce que le digital labor? (INA, 2015).

New York to San Francisco: my U.S. conference tour (October 20-29, 2015)

If you happen to be in one of these fine US cities, come meet me. I’ll be on a tour to promote a coupla books of mine. Talks are open (but you have to register), plus it’s always a pleasure to have a chat afterwards.

Tour dates

New York City, The New School
Digital Labor in a Material World
I’ll be presenting my latest book Qu’est-ce que le digital labor? (INA, 2015) at the New School, ft. Richard Maxwell (Queens College, CUNY),  Laura Y. Liu and Trebor Scholz (New School).
Oct. 20, 2015
The New School, Orozco Room, 66 West 12th Street, 
Room A712
, New York, NY 10011.


Pittsburgh, City of Asylum
Four theses on mass surveillance and privacy negotiation
A salon reading about my book Against the Hypothesis of the End of Privacy (Springer, 2014) at the-now mythical Pittsburgh City of Asylum, a sanctuary for exiled and endangered writers in residence.
Oct. 22, 2015
City of Asylum, 330 Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh,PA 15212.

Boston, Boston Book Festival
Trolls (and what they do to the public sphere)
The French Cultural Center host a talks co-presented with the Boston Book Festival. I’ll be chatting with internet activist Willow Brugh about problematic speech online, its dark sides and how to turn it into a field of opportunities for social justice and civil rights. Somewhat based to my book Les Liaisons Numériques (Seuil, 2010).
Oct. 24, 2015
The French Cultural Center, 53 Marlborough Street, Boston, MA 02116.


Berkeley, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley Center for New Media
Negotiating privacy and transparency: a digital labor?
My keynote speech at the Manufacturing Transparency international conference. Based on my books Against the Hypothesis of the End of Privacy (Springer, 2014) and Qu’est-ce que le digital labor? (INA, 2015).
Oct. 28, 2015
Berkeley Center for New Media, 426 Sutardja Dai Hall, University of California Berkeley, CA 94720.

Santa Clara, Santa Clara University, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
How can someone be a troll?
From Montesqieu to internet trolls… A public lecture at the very heart of the Silicon Valley, to define the ethical role of tech companies in overcoming present-day ambivalent attitudes towards trolling. Based on my books Les Liaisons Numériques (Seuil, 2010) and Qu’est-ce que le digital labor? (INA, 2015).
Oct. 29, 2015
Santa Clara University, Vari Hall, The Wiegand Center, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053.

NB: unfortunately, due to a time conflict the seminar about “pro-ana” and ED-sufferers online communities previously scheduled at the University of Southern California, Institute for Health Promotion Research, Los Angeles, has been cancelled.

Thanks to the Book Department of the NYC French Embassy and the San Francisco French consulate for building this thing up from scratch.

[Podcast] Antonio Casilli sur Occupy Wall Street (France Culture, La Grande Table, 11 févr. 2013)

Podcast de l’émission La Grande Table, le magazine culturel du midi sur France Culture : pour dresser un bilan du mouvement Occupy à l’occasion de la parution du livre de Noam Chomsky Occupy aux Editions de l’Herne, Caroline Broué accueille François Cusset, Sylvie Laurent et le sociologue Antonio Casilli, auteur de Les liaisons numériques. Vers une nouvelle sociabilité ? (Ed. du Seuil).


» Que reste-t-il du mouvement Occupy Wall Street ? – Idées – France Culture – 28 minutes.

Pour écouter d’autres podcast d’Antonio Casilli sur France Culture.

“Cet ouvrage est en réalité très intéressant car il resitue Occupy dans le contexte américain et en même temps il faut aussi s’interroger sur la cartographie de l’année 2011. Chacun de ces mouvements sont enracinés dans des réalités, des histoires politiques d’un pays, d’une nation. J’aurais aimé qu’il interroge le positionnement d’Occupy par rapport à un mouvement qui l’a précédé Tea Party, et notamment sur la question de l’horizontalité, de l’absence de leadership.

[…] Quel est l’attracteur politique de ce mouvement ? C’est des mouvements qui proposent une certaine déontologie du politique, une certaine manière de faire du politique, de créer de la subjectivité politique”


Some modest remarks on the role of citizen lobbying in defeating #SOPA

So apparently SOPA is dead, for now. If you’ve been following the recent events surrounding this infamous anti-piracy (and anti-free speech) law, you know that’s good news for a lot of people – me included. The way this thing will go down in history is pretty much that “an iniquitous piece of legislation was to be voted, but a 7 million-strong Google petition, a rally in San Francisco and a massive online campaign (including a spectacular 24-hour blackout) defeated it”. Unfortunately, this means downplaying the role of another important element of this story: lobbying.

If you are not aware of how US lobbying works (or, worse, if you are European), let me break it down for you. Lobbying basically means talking to the right persons and influence them in following a certain political line. Sometimes this line is instantiated by a clear gain in terms of funding for politicians – to be used to be re-elected, to promote new policies, public works programmes, or political activity in general. Government resources are scarse, so this keeps the machine running, although in some cases it borders on buying votes. Telecommunication and electronics companies are among the biggest “buyers”.

Communication and electronics sector displays one of the highest and fastest increasing lobbying spending. Source: Sunlight Foundation


Who's fatter, the US or Europe?

Just a very quick post (more of a reminder actually). Here’s a picture of the US obesity situation, state per state.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Aug. 3, 2010

Now you can come up with all your favourite explaining factors: soul food? income level? music style? Pick one. Hold onto it. And now, let’s have look at the situation in the European Union, nation per nation, and… (more…)

CfP: Digital Cities 6: Concepts, Methods and Systems of Urban Informatics

Digital Cities 6: Concepts, Methods and Systems of Urban Informatics
Workshop at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies
Penn State, USA, 24th June 2009

April 30th, 2009 Workshop position papers due
May 18th, 2009 Author notifications sent
June 24th, 2009 Workshop

Keynote speaker

We are happy to announce that Professor Carlo Ratti, Director of the SENSEable City Lab at MIT (, will deliver the keynote presentation at Digital Cities 6.

The real-time city is now real! The increasing deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics in recent years is allowing a new approach to the study of the built environment. The way we describe and understand cities is being radically transformed – alongside the tools we use to design them and impact on their physical structure. Studying these changes from a critical point of view and anticipating them is the goal of the SENSEable City Laboratory, a new research initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.