vcs i will sell you this idea for £5bn

consumer apps of the future

Here is a product I want: a privacy-preserving camera app, for street scenes and found events.

Taking pictures of people without their knowledge has always been a contested behaviour. Photographers, journalists, and media professionals will happily cite privacy laws, which generally say something along the lines of "if you're in a public space, you don't really have an expectation of privacy".

Yet at the same time, those rights have been accompanied with a fairly widespread – if legally shaky – belief in the right to control your image. Cameras may not steal your soul, but it's hardly unworldly to bristle a bit when a stranger points a lens at you.

Until recently, though, the conflict was low-key. Photographers had bigger problems than members of the public attesting their right to privacy – heck, one of the genuinely formative political fights for me, in the weird boom politics of the noughties, was the "war on photographers" created by the one-two punch of the privatisation of public spaces, and the wild overreach of anti-terror operations. Suddenly, half of London became a place where you could be stopped by the police – or by private security guards dressed up to look like the police – if you were using a camera in a suspicious manner. Think James Bridle being arrested while trying to take pictures of every CCTV camera covering the congestion charge zone.

[Synchronicity: while I'm writing this, this thread of Bob Mazzer's candid photography has just been posted on Twitter. Judging by the watermarks, the person who made the viral thread has simply downloaded a bunch of images from the Daily Mail's website, where they were posted in 2014, and re-written the copy around it. Those images are, in turn, lifted from Mazzer's out-of-print book, published that same year, which reprinted the photos that had already been posted on the Spitalfields Life blog in 2013, and achieved some viral success back then. I don't know why I catalogue this chain, except that I feel someone ought to. Compounding the ambiguity, I’ve put a few of his photos in here.]

And from the – what is the obverse of photographer? Subject? Public? – from their point of view, being photographed by a stranger remained a comparatively rare event, and one that was of little import. Yes, the odd unlucky sort found themselves on the other end of the lens from a world famous artist, blown up and stuck in a gallery or coffee table book for decades to come. But even then, unless you had fairly unique features, you were mostly anonymous. For the rest of us, as long as we had the good fortune to stay out of major news events, the worst that would happen would be that we'd find ourselves in the back of a stranger's holiday snaps.

Now, that's changed. It feels like a fair bet to say that lives have been ruined by the combination of ever-present cameras, internet virality, and people's callous disregard for the privacy of their fellows. Sometimes those lives are ruined messily, in the open, when someone is filmed or photographed doing something objectionable, and the press and public descend upon them, firstly as an anonymous hate figure, and then, later, when someone – press or public – has done the legwork to unmask them, as an extremely… nonymous? one. Cat Bin Lady (Americans, google it) was not filmed by a smartphone camera, but other than that, she fits the bill.

Sometimes, those lives are ruined quietly, when no-one needs to track down the subject to inflict the harm. Did you see that viral video the other week of the couple kissing on camera at a football match, then looking guilty and sad when they realised they'd been filmed? The entire point of the virality was that his "marriage was over", as the 2.1m follower, shithead-run account Barstool Sports put it. But his marriage wasn't over until the virality made it so. Unless his wife – his hallucinatory wife, conjured into being in our collective imagination by his guilty expression – was at the game, his marriage was under no risk until the internet decided it was funny that it was. 

The norms are changing, thankfully. My group of friends is not the internet, and the internet is not the world, but it is generally accepted amongst people I know that it's A Dick Move to take photos of strangers without their permission, in a way that it wasn't five or ten years ago. The laws haven't changed, and I'd be hesitant to say they should - journalism and civil society would still probably lose more than privacy would gain, and somehow I doubt any legislative fix for Dick Moves would cover the far more serious infringements on personal privacy represented by blanket CCTV and rising use of facial recognition.

But.

Sometimes you just want to take a picture of someone doing some wild shit, you know? And you don't, because you're a good person, but you wish you had, because christ, I've lived in London for thirty years and even I've never seen that.

So: here is the app I want. You take a picture, or video, of a scene which is saved temporarily – never to your camera roll – and then processed. A neural network, trained adversarially against surveillance technology (like facial recognition, automatic number plate recognition, gait analysis, clothing, whatever), takes the bits it recognises, and scrambles them, using another GAN to generate new versions of those identifiers it is replacing. Faces are replaced with people who do not exist; licence plates with randomly generated nonsense; but also, cars are replaced with similar models and different colours, outfits with clothing that carries the same semantic, thematic weight but in fits that no-one has worn before. Think of it like a version of the scrambler suits worn in A Scanner Darkly, but existing digitally, in the eye of the beholder, and not physically, on the body of the paranoid.

A new scene is created, that perfectly preserves the privacy of everyone in it, but maintains the meaning of the clip, or still, you wanted to record.

Then you can post it on twitter with 'omg look at this dude I saw at grand central station', receive four likes and a retweet, and go on with your day, conscience salved.

a short story prompt

"Have you heard of this website," your slightly nerdier, yet, improbably, slightly cooler, flatmate asks one evening, "called this person does not exist?"

You sigh, and tell them no, you haven't, and they beckon you over. "It's a website, right, that shows you faces generated by an AI. Like, this computer's been shown thousands – millions! – of photos of people, and it's learned to make new ones all on its own, except none of them exist! They aren't real people at all, but, like, unless you really know what you're looking for – sometimes it looks a bit, um, painterly? At the details. And the backgrounds are always really blurred out – but unless you know what you're looking for, it's nearly impossible to tell they aren't even real photos, let alone that the people don't exist anywhere in the world!"

Rolling your eyes, you ask them to show you the website. Your rice is cooking in the kitchen, this can't take long.

They turn the laptop round, and there's a blonde woman smiling out at you. You have to admit, it does look pretty real. They refresh the page, and there's an elderly man. "Pretty cool, huh?"

They refresh the page again, and a face flashes up that is unmistakably, impossibly, your own.

someone made the taco soup

You may remember a few weeks ago I promised to make the Taco Soup recipe created by an AI trained on the r/recipies subreddit.

Then, life happened, and I never got round to it.

Well, good news: someone made the taco soup. As expected, it's sort of monstrous, but also… like, if I was hungover enough, I would absolutely drink that soup from the saucepan.

(Thanks to Daniel for the link!)

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that’s enough of that,

Alex