Sep 7, 2019 - Technology

Deep Dive: The end of anonymity

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Until now, the vast majority of information collected about us has remained untouched — there was just too much to make sense of it all.

What's happening: Artificial intelligence allows data that might once have gone unnoticed to now be detected, analyzed and logged in real time. It's already started supercharging surveillance at work, in schools and in cities.

The big picture: Humans have monitored each other as long as we've lived in communities to punish free riders and troublemakers.

  • But now, cheap, powerful machines are taking the place of human watchers, disrupting a long-held social contract.
  • Unlike in China, where high-tech surveillance is a tool of fear and control, systems in the West are not centralized for now, curbing the scope of data gathering.
  • And tech companies like Facebook and Google have perfected online versions of automated surveillance for profit, in the form of products we can no longer live without.

Details: Software can identify and track faces, skin color, clothing, tattoos, walking gait and various other physical attributes and behaviors. But it's been plagued with bias and inaccuracy problems that primarily harm people of color.

  • From facial expressions and body movements, AI can extrapolate emotions like happiness and anger — a process built on shaky scientific evidence.

The impact: This quiet shift from passive watching to active surveillance is chipping away at our ability to remain anonymous in physical and virtual spaces.

  • Blending into the crowd is no longer an option if every face in that crowd is captured, compared against a driver's license photo and logged.
  • Constant AI surveillance threatens to erode the all-important presumption of innocence, says Clare Garvie, a privacy expert at Georgetown Law.

Go deeper:

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Activists fight to keep face recognition off college campuses

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Fresh off a campaign to ban facial recognition software from being used at concerts, Fight for the Future is trying to rally students to persuade their schools to take a similarly strong stand against broad use of the powerful technology.

Why it matters: In the absence of legislation limiting its use, activists want to prevent facial recognition from becoming commonplace in public spaces.

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Google CEO calls for balanced regulations on artificial intelligence

Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is calling for regulations on artificial intelligence, warning that the technology can bring both positive and negative consequences, AP reports.

Why it matters: Lawmakers are largely scrambling to play catch-up on AI regulation as the technology continues to grow. Pichai did not provide specific proposals, but did urge while speaking at the Bruegel European economic think tank Monday that "international alignment" between the United States and the European Union will help ensure AI is used primarily for good.

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Facebook to pay $550 million over facial recognition tagging system

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook said on Wednesday it will pay $550 million in response to an Illinois-based class-action lawsuit against the facial recognition technology in its photo-labeling service, the New York Times reports.

The big picture: The settlement is a sign that state-level regulations on facial recognition can extract real penalties from social media giants like Facebook, as more states introduce bills to regulate, ban or study the tech.

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