Is it technologically possible, using today's technology, to make a phone app that renders a spy nearly impossible to photograph with another smartphone in a public place?

Assume the spy has with him nothing but a standard smartphone and normal clothing. He isn't doing anything special to disguise his face. All the work is done by the app on a normal smartphone, interacting with the cloud, of course.

Can it work? Think about it for a minute before I give you a solution. Otherwise you might be bugged that you didn't think of it on your own.

Okay, here's how this could work.

First, assume the maker of the app is the United States government, and assume they have hooks into all the major phone makers' operating systems and all of the phone carriers' networks. I think this is a fair assumption. And if they don't have that access, they can get it with some arm-twisting.

The app that the spy uses would do nothing but continuously transmit his GPS location to the cloud. The real magic comes from the government's control of all the other smartphones in the world. The spy agency could force any smartphone within photo distance of the spy to forward pictures taken during that time - and that time only - up to the cloud for facial recognition processing. The tourist who takes the photo is unaware that the photo is being uploaded to the cloud.

Once in the cloud, facial recognition software looks for signs that the spy, who is known to be in the vicinity of the photo, actually appears in the photo. If it gets a match, the spy's face is automatically replaced with stock photo of another person's face that is roughly the same age, gender, and ethnicity. The new photo is downloaded to the original phone and replaces the one that had the spy picture.

The spy software would have to intercept any photos before they get posted to social media, so there might be a time lag when a user posts to social media anything within a block of a spy. But most people would assume the lag is from network congestion or a server hiccup at Facebook.

This is another example of what I call the upcoming Age of Magic, when technology will do for us the types of things we would only see in a Harry Potter movie.



Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of this book



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Aug 4, 2014
Wow, this post has netted a whole bunch of reasons why this won't work for its intended use and a whole bunch of ways it could be perverted to make our lives worse. Thanks for coming up with these great ideas!
Aug 4, 2014
That's actually a good way to identify spies.

You take your picture with your mobile phone and take the same ones again with a digital camera.

You compare the photos your phone shows you with the real world photos taken on a digital camera.

Anyone with a changed face is a spy.
Aug 3, 2014
Scott, you just described the MO of the main villain in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. That's the first season of the anime. Just go ahead and watch it already.
Aug 3, 2014
Two words: airplane mode.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 2, 2014
Wouldn't work for several reasons:

(a) A tech-savvy enemy state ("the USSR"), would be aware of how the app works, and so would have an app of their own to copy all photos taken to memory with a different file name/type, and thus would actually be able to DETERMINE the identity of any spy by comparing the two images. Thus the app would work against its intended purpose, simply by having agents taking pictures at random in places that a spy might come through, like an airport.

(b) this assumes that smartphones are ALWAYS connected to the cloud. While that's generally true, airports (for example) are full of people taking pictures but with their phones still in "Airplane mode", and thus off the web. Eventually the smartphone will go back on the web, but after the spy's GPS coordinates no longer match the smartphone's.
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 2, 2014
Wouldn't this system actually make it much, much easier to find spies?

Take two pictures through some sort of special dividing lens, one with a government-provided cellphone and one with a dumb camera. If there's any difference between the two you just found a spy!

+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 2, 2014
Technologically possible? Sure.

Likely to work in practice without anybody noticing or being able to do anything about it? Nope.

Aug 2, 2014
You're going to transmit the GPS location of every spy, plus all photos taken nearby, over the internet?

It's reasonable to assume that anything posted online, encrypted or not, can and will be intercepted by a sufficiently motivated government agency.

So, you're going to provide everyone who shouldn't know about and especially shouldn't find these people with a detailed location history and many hundreds/thousands of photos?

Technologically feasible? Sure. A good idea? Not a chance.

P.S. "The cloud" is an absurd (but also genius) marketing term. Normal people would do well not to use it. However, because normal people DO use it, I use the hilarious Chrome browser plugin "Cloud to Butt Plus". It made this post particularly entertaining to read. :)

(There is a Firefox version as well)
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 1, 2014
The only thing I want to see in real life from a Harry Potter movie is Hermionie's panties. Preferably with Herminonie halfway in them.

As for the technology that does face recognition on the fly... pivot your startup to advertising.

Because Ad's are everywhere and we need more. I need to be so completely inundated with advertising that I don't know my own dumper from a hole in the ground.

Just like in Minority Report, when you walk into a store, or down the street or getting in bed, the camera will take a photo of your mug, find out who you are and shove targeted advertising up your rectal area. Because nothing makes me want to buy more of something that irritates me.

Why so bitter? Because it's going to happen and I'll be extra annoyed when it does. I can't even go to a Carls Jr without a TV in every view showing nothing but advertising. It's like I'm in a Twilight Zone horror where all information about the world is delivered via advertising and fake news.

Also, I wrote a brilliant reply to the previous post but when I hit 'post comment', I got logged out and my text deleted. I'll consider it a detriment to humanity that no one read it.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 1, 2014
I'm confused. The scenario is an American spy preventing photographs in an area where the US government has leverage (i.e. control)? I would think the bigger problem would be a known spy lurking around foreign assets.

However, you have touched on a much bigger issue looming in the near future. Ubiquitous security cameras coupled with facial recognition software. This will enable any sufficiently powerful and motivated entity to find and track anybody.
Aug 1, 2014
Nothing you said was wrong, but you seem to have missed out on the hypothetical technology that was the basis of this entire blog entry.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 1, 2014
More likely- phone manufacturer uploads your picture to its servers, inserts advertisement in the background, downloads back to your camera.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 1, 2014
My wife. the master-spy, is going to take some highly classified pics of the inside of her purse.
Aug 1, 2014
"the police are interested in being able to create 'cellphone dead spaces' to be able to brutalize people without any cameraphones making any evidence of said police abuse"

This only demonstrates that either those police, or more likely you, don't really understand how that works. Clue: cellphone cameras are CAMERAS, not cellphones. You only need the "cellphone" functionality to upload the video to the web, and that assumes that you don't simply connect your phone to the web using one of them thar old timey wimey "wire" things they used to have back in the day.
Jul 31, 2014
Keep having these ideas Scott, they're fun. It's a bloody terrible idea for a spy, but similar technology is being studied by police.

Right now the police are interested in being able to create 'cellphone dead spaces' to be able to brutalize people without any cameraphones making any evidence of said police abuse. I believe in the Ukraine these techniques were used in Kiev, although the protesters were able to fight back and bring down the government.


Hopefully people will still shoot cops with real cameras, however the police can always still destroy the memory card before uploading (the benefit of cellphones, broadcast before censorship can happen).
Jul 31, 2014
have you ever tried to get good 4G coverage when way inside a mall? If it's a hi-res picture there may be some practical problems with this 8-}
Jul 31, 2014
Apropos of celebrities and other public figures:

-- Could someone copyright/trademark his/her face and use such a system to identify everybody who takes a picture, either charging them money or suppressing shots altogether? This would render paparazzi a truly endangered species, but also criminalize anybody who uses a camera in any proximity to a connected person.

-- Instead of a stock face protecting a spy, imagine an airbrushed, smiling glamour portrait being stuck into every candid shot of a celeb or politician. Even when they're being dragged off from a drunken brawl.

-- Perhaps more conceivably, DC, Marvel and other owners of fictional characters can remotely crack down on the professional impersonators who now haunt tourist spots. If people knew their posed shots with "Batman" would appear with a big FBI logo over the superhero's face, there goes the market.

+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
Er, replace "spy," with "spy's target," in all the the first instance.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2014
I think the idea is horrible, but at one time Scott explained that he likes to post his bad ideas because sometimes people come up with good ideas from it.
So here is my take. Replace "spy voluntarily using smartphone ap," with "spy plants mini-GPS transmitter on target." Then instead of the cloud removing the face of the person the GPS is on, it just forwards output of all picture capable devices near the GPS to the NSA database. Congratulations, near real time video of the spy without having to hide actual cameras or recording devices. You will capture both the actions of the spy, and where they are/what they are looking at.
(Yes, this assumes your phone can take pictures without you clicking a button. If you don't think this is the case, you need to learn that cell phones are computers).
Jul 31, 2014
I think it's more likely they would just filter all the photos. Everywhere.

You don't want your spies constantly transmitting their GPS location.
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