Question: what do Spiderman, Superman and Batman have in common, aside from a suffix and a reputation for all-conquering box-office receipts? Answer: each superhero is a carefully concealed identity crisis. Peter Parker, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne respectively plug away at their day jobs; well, Kent does at any rate. The ever-youthful Peter Parker is eternally at college, and Wayne is of course a billionaire, so his schedule is presumably quite loose, but you get the general idea. Their alter egos get to run, fly and jump around performing stupendous acts of heroism without any of the heinous PR that such acts would inevitably generate in real life.
They pop up, do their thing, then disappear without so much as a soundbite to the press. Secret identities stay secret, known only to a select few, and never to be exposed – although the threat of exposure propels many a storyline.
But just how likely is this proposition?
Could a secret identity remain intact for any length of time in today’s overly surveilled world? Let’s examine some of the practical stumbling blocks to maintaining a superheroic alter ego in 2017.
Facial Recognition Technology
The old Scooby-Doo rubber mask trick is rather difficult to pull off these days, thanks to the proliferation of facial recognition technology in both the public and private sectors. It’s to be found everywhere and increasingly online too as a way to cut crime. Customs control points and port authorities use FRT to match passenger faces against stored records at air and seaports, rail stations and shipping areas. According to a recent report by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology, this pooled database currently covers more than 117 million adults; that’s just over half the entire US population, giving today’s superhero a less than 50-50 chance to slip through their security net.
The private sector is catching on fast: anyone who’s purchased a recent-generation Mac product has had to secure their purchase with a headshot photograph uploaded to Apple in the cause of corporate security, and this tactic is increasingly where we seem to be headed. According to the Washington Post, the next iPhone is rumored to be ditching its fingerprint scanner in favor of 3D facial recognition, and if it does, other phone manufacturers are bound to follow.
There’s also less new but equally useful tech when it comes to identifying people. For instance, OCR – Optical Character Recognition – has been traditionally used to find and pull the text from a written document into digital format – it was even applied by Google to “catalogue the world’s books in Google Books. However, we can now use OCR in live video streams – which means that any documents captured by a camera, even in real time, can be identified for including specific words or combinations of words. One example of this is live casino gaming. Online casino operator Betway deploys this technology in live table games such as baccarat and blackjack. The software identifies the actual cards dealt by a dealer on video and then overlays this information on top of the video stream to give players at home relevant stats and data which will allow them to decide on their next move. We’ve also seen more basic applications: iTunes will pull the live feed of your iPhone camera and identify the numerical characters when you scan a gift card. With FRT and OCR usage spreading through the business world, it would take a truly superhuman feat not to get caught out by it eventually, by having a passport or identifying document slip out of a pocket or a backpack.
Sorry Superman, but the inexorable rise of the smartphone has pretty much put paid to the old-fashioned phone booth. Just over three quarters (77%) of Americans now possess a smartphone, and as of November 2016, 9 out of 10 of us are online, so if you can find a payphone left in Metropolis, it’ll probably be no more than a scuffed plastic hood bolted to a wall at head level, affording no privacy for a sneaky costume change. Just to administer an additional kick to a costumed crotch, when we’re not sharing pictures of what we’ve eaten recently, we’re all so busy snapping ourselves against picturesque postcard scenes that our superhero is bound to crop up on Instagram within a few seconds of his arrival, and in milliseconds after that will institutionalized as viral meme, hashtag battle or Reddit controversy.
The explosion of social media that dominates our age does not bode well for keeping an identity secret, at least not near prominent tourist attractions. It’s equally bad news for Batman, thanks to the ubiquity of geo-tagging. Most modern smartphones ship with a GPS facility, which maps users’ location with mathematical precision. Batman can lurk all he wants to in dark and shadowed alleyways, but with CCTV coverage at an all-time high, someone will notice before too long and they’ll probably post the image straight to Facebook, if only to show off. How long then until some bright spark compiles a map of Batman’s known appearances precise to the minute of the hour, overlaid on the urban grid of Gotham City? A spot of algorithmic number crunching in a basement montage is all it would take to draw attention to the uncanny fact that the Wayne family mansion sits at the very epicentre of all that suspicious activity… Gee, thanks, Google Maps.
Biometrics and the Enduring Taint of Humanity
Fingerprints, voice prints, foot prints, DNA or just good old-fashioned dandruff; we are all of us fated to leave a very unique and uniquely human smear on our surroundings, wherever we go and however we get there. These tell-tale signatures make up our passage through time and space, and with the right equipment can be used to profile us and to track our meanderings. When this is done, we call the result biometrics, a rapidly expanding technology market currently worth in excess of USD 10.74 billion. Superheroes too would be subject to such prevalent biometric profiling, yes even Superman, who is of course not remotely human. If he is a living being, then he too must bow down before the immutable laws of entropy and shed a skin cell here or there… Realistically, there can be no exceptions. Well, maybe one, actually.
Batman’s expensive and all-too-hollow victory
In a three-way tussle to maintain a secret identity against this onslaught of state and corporate-sponsored profiling, Batman, or rather Bruce Wayne stands possibly the best chance of putting up a spirited resistance, at least for a little while. Poor old Peter Parker may have the physics background to get hands on with the tech, but the guy’s a student, he won’t be pulling in a working wage. And as for Superman, Clark Kent chains words together for a day job, not lines of formulae. Maybe Bruce couldn’t do much about his social media presence except tinker a bit with his Facebook settings, but he at least has the funds at hand to address his biometric profiling, if only by attempting to buy up each and every security company involved in the sector to add them to the Wayne Industries portfolio. If he owned all the companies, then maybe – just maybe – he could get away with deleting himself from the database, and calling the move an administrative privilege or something. Worth a go, anyway. And if he loses his home over it, then at least there’s the Bat Cave to fall back on.
Sources & References of Inspiration:
- Google Books Library Project: An enhanced card catalog of the world’s books
- Betway Casino Online: iGaming Operator
- Apple iTunes: Redemption Giftcards
- Pew Research Centre: Record shares of Americans now own smartphones, have home broadband