One of my favorite TV shows was Person of Interest. In that show, a genius programmer was hired by the government to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) computer to tap into and analyze communication feeds and predict activities that may pose a threat. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, things spun out of control; the system that was designed to benefit society was not always beneficial to citizens.
As amusing as it is to watch escapist fiction such as this, it’s not so enjoyable when you realize it’s no longer fiction. China has already developed the infrastructure to envelop their citizens in this protective surveillance net and has begun that slippery slope of using AI to not only catch activities deemed undesired by the government – it’s starting to take action against those observed.
In the city of Shenzhen (and most likely others), when an offender is observed jaywalking via video surveillance, they will publicly humiliate you by showing your face on screens located around the city. Now that’s bad enough but they’re going a step further. Those identified will have their cell phone ‘pinged’ and be sent an immediate fine.
By the way, Intellifusion, the company behind the AI system involved is in talks with WeChat and Seina Weibo (China’s equivalents of Facebook and Twitter).
You may think there must be some kind of check-and-balance system built in to ensure that children would be protected so that they wouldn’t suffer the same consequences as an adult. You’d be wrong.
As you can imagine, this outing of a child in such a public manner has sparked outrage. Instead of backing down on their stance, the police have doubled down and stated that no one is above the law and its draconian reaction. Of course they have. I know if I wanted to start weeding out hidden miscreants, I’d set up exactly this scenario. Guess what’s going to happen to those expressing their discontent.
You may think that all this isn’t so bad because it’s just surveillance out in the street, where people can see you anyway, so what’s the big deal? Well, this is just the beginning. In order to crack down on children playing on gambling sites on their computers, corporations are now starting to institute facial recognition utilizing the user’s webcam. Of course children shouldn’t be gambling but now long until this in-home video requirement expands to include normal, everyday websites such as social media? How long until they convince you it’s much more convenient for you to just use cameras that you can have installed in your home to protect children, assist in gaining you access to what you need, and help you increase your social credit by watching your good deeds at home at the same time?
In case you’re one of those ‘careful’ types who wouldn’t allow that kind of nonsense in your home, Huwawei and other very large manufacturers of electronics in China and around the world have become big suppliers to China’s security services. All they need to do is develop surveillance systems that help improve our lives at the same time so we actually pay for the privilege. Systems such as Ulo not only watch your home for you, it becomes part of your family. Can you think of other surveillance systems that we’ve now graciously invited into our homes?
What has begun is the dismantling of due process and the systematic expansion of systems that can be mined for data. Not only is every action observed, anything that the program decides is aberrant or not beneficial can now be punished without any intervention or legal protection – and no one is safe.
Now, most likely, you are reading this from a country outside of China, so why do you care? The AI in the fictional TV show based in the U.S., Person of Interest couldn’t ever become a reality, could it? Systems in the U.S. have been able to automatically scan license plates for a while now and alert police to stolen vehicles. Cameras are now on pretty much every intersection in any city in the country and along the highways. The infrastructure to start this kind of surveillance state is already in place. All it would take is to somehow tap into this system with an AI to observe human behavior and perhaps even judge and jury like what’s happening in China. Unfortunately, this is also becoming a reality.
A company called ZeroEyes has developed a system that can detect and alert the presence of even concealed weapons, resulting in a visual pat-down that only requires a camera in the room. Of course, if this is used to protect a facility that lets you know that entry is tacit approval, that’s one thing. ZeroEyes is already working with school systems and is moving toward a deal with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Another company that is in the weapon-identification game is called Athena, but it has taken this one step further. Not only does their AI detect hidden weapons, it detects and alerts to human behavior itself. It learns how people move and their facial expressions and then decides when someone is acting strangely and alerts the authorities.
How long until they plug these AI systems into cameras all throughout town and even in our homes? How long until these systems start being used in ways that we were assured would not happen? How long until those with criminal or political intentions start using AI and surveillance to coerce behavior and punish those who don’t toe the party line?
Do you think we will reach a point where being surveilled will be completely unavoidable? Are there things you do to reduce or avoid being watched? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Graywolf is a former Counterintelligence Agent and US Army combat veteran. His experience as an agent, soldier and government contractor on assignments around the world gives him a unique perspective on the world and how to deal with it. His website is Graywolf Survival.
Tread cautiously: the fiction of George Orwell has become an operation manual for the omnipresent, modern-day surveillance state. It’s been 70 years since Orwell—dying, beset by fever and bloody coughing fits, and driven to warn against the rise of a society in which rampant abuse of power and mass manipulation are the norm—depicted the ominous rise of ubiquitous technology, fascism and totalitarianism in 1984.
We are staring our Orwellian future right in the face. Beginning in New York, facial recognition is coming to schools in the United States and it’ll be switched on for testing next week.
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