Where Everyone Knows Your Name
January 25, 2022 8:13 PM   Subscribe

All Eyes on You So you wish to fight street crime but you want to maintain your privacy for reasons.

In this blog post from Metafilter's Own, jasonhong the idea of being free of surveillance as either a street crime-fighting superhero or private citizen is much harder than you think.
"Now, comic book fans love debates about almost-pointless topics, like who would win in a fight or who has the best sidekick. That’s part of the fun of being a fan! One could argue about how Superman could avoid this kind of face recognition, or how Spider-Man’s spidey sense would help him avoid that kind of tracking. But, if it isn’t already obvious, this blog post isn’t really about superheroes, it’s actually about our current reality and just how widespread a lot of these surveillance technologies are."
The Panopticon is here with even more AI flavor. The keyword, "privacy" gets you 712+ articles on this site alone. "Panopticism" from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault (summary and original extract.)
posted by jadepearl (16 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This is why Stan and Jack created Magneto. And can be tracked with a pair of binoculars in any modern Metropolis.

Superman faces risks from large-scale face recognition technologies
Can't just butit'superman that away. The timestamps alone could detect the trail of whoosh to the phone booth or service alley. If not a chain like geometric Superman orbital tracker is possible.
posted by clavdivs at 8:51 PM on January 25

The real reason Batman fights crime in the middle of the night? When else will he be able to drive his big honkin' (and very recognizable) customized car around, evading both the bad guys and the cops, without getting stuck in traffic?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:17 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]

Superman faces risks from large-scale face recognition technologies.

A surprisingly high percentage of the population of Metropolis knows that Clark Kent is Superman. Clark gets unsubtle winks from random strangers on a daily basis. His double identity is not kept secret by fake glasses or face vibration, it's kept secret by a failure of moral imagination.

On several occasions private investigators have shown Lex Luthor video footage of Clark changing into Superman and flying away. Each time, Luthor had the investigators killed. Kent, Superman? The most powerful being on this planet spends his time interviewing nobodies? Listening to them mewl about their insignificant problems?

One time, in a failed attempt to come out of the closet, Clark went to a Daily Planet office Halloween party dressed as Superman. He took the glasses off. Everybody laughed at him.

It's hard to be your best self. Being more than a bystander, caring enough to help, taking decisive action, accepting responsibility for what follows. Empathy, moral courage, self-sacrifice - none of that comes from yellow-sun radiation. I don't think Clark Kent is pretending to be shy. I think it's hard for him to see himself as Superman.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:34 AM on January 26 [18 favorites]

Take Spider-Man, for example. When Peter Parker spots trouble, he has a habit of diving into an alley to change into his costume.
Not to mention the difficulty of finding an alley in Manhattan. I think the costs of land are too high not to build to the edge of the property line.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:28 AM on January 26

There are only a handful of alleys in New York, and only one is suitable for filming, so almost all New York alley movie scenes are filmed in Cortlandt Alley.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:52 AM on January 26 [19 favorites]

Maybe, in comic terms, the superheroes are the panopticon, there to keep an eye on all those potential evil doers.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:00 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

chavenet's law of comic book conversation: if there is an unanswerable question, the answer is Plastic Man
posted by chavenet at 4:35 AM on January 26

Hi folks, author of the blog post here. I'm a huge fan of comic books, and also do a lot of research on computer privacy, and so this post was a great way of connecting the two together. Part of the goal was to have a lot of fun about superheroes, but also to raise awareness of how widespread these kinds of surveillance and tracking technologies are.

Part of the challenge with all of the superhero scenarios is that it only takes a few minor failures and the game is up. Operational security is really hard, especially if there are a lot of fans, villains, and governments highly interested in figuring out who you are and willing to spend a lot of time, money, and energy on it. For superheroes, I imagine it would be a cross between paparazzi + celeb culture + the entire fandom of Lost trying to figure out who they actually are.
posted by jasonhong at 6:38 AM on January 26 [19 favorites]

Never forget what happened when Lex Luthor accidentally swapped bodies with the Flash. He said "At least I can learn Flash's secret identity," went into the bathroom and removed the cowl. He stared at himself in the mirror for a moment, then admitted "I have no idea who this is."
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:06 AM on January 26 [13 favorites]

I recall a Starbrand story (back when Marvel's New Universe was still a thing) in which Starbrand, in full body costume, visits a comic book convention. One of the pros (a thinly-disguised John Byrne, IIRC) schools Starbrand on why secret identities only work in comics because the writers say so. Examining Starbrand, the pro explains that, yes, you have a full face mask, but I can see your eyes are blue and a little skin around them, so I know that you're a white guy of a certain height and weight within a certain age range, and really how hard would it be for the authorities to just go through DMV records to come up with a list of possible candidates?

The MCU made a good decision to basically drop the whole secret identity trope. It's a fun idea, but not very practical these days.
posted by SPrintF at 7:24 AM on January 26

Faint of Butt: "Never forget what happened when Lex Luthor accidentally swapped bodies with the Flash. He said "At least I can learn Flash's secret identity," went into the bathroom and removed the cowl. He stared at himself in the mirror for a moment, then admitted "I have no idea who this is.""

That reminds me of the scene in WP Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe" where Ray Kinsella and JD Salinger are pulled over by a cop, and the cop asks for to see Jerry's license, and looks at "Jerome David Salinger" without the slightest hint of recognition.
posted by chavenet at 8:23 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]

Try fighting (read doxxing) actual nazis in America today. If they find out who you are, your entire family is at risk and you are on the hook for home security systems to try and protect yourself.
posted by AJScease at 11:59 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

this is an interesting discussion and hardly pointless.. if I wanted pointless, I'd ask: Who would win in a fight, Swamp Thing or Groot?

edit: just googled and of course there's a reddit thread
posted by elkevelvet at 1:03 PM on January 26

Swamp Thing, no question.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:41 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]

I know offhand of a child who was kidnapped fairly recently. Video surveillance was completely useless. The panopticon is great for prosecuting crime after assailants are known, but stopping crime [via identifying assailants]? We just aren't there yet. So I have no difficulty believing Superman or Batman wouldn't worry about video surveillance much.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:27 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]

« Older I never metafiction I didn't like.   |   "His images moved minds." Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments