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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:

Go deeper

Justice Department drops insider trading inquiry against Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) walking through the Senate Subway in the U.S. Capitol in December 2020. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The Department of Justice told Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Tuesday that it will not move forward with insider trading charges against him.

Why it matters: The decision, first reported by the New York Times, effectively ends the DOJ's investigation into the senator's stock sell-off that occurred after multiple lawmakers were briefed about the coronavirus' potential economic toll. Burr subsequently stepped down as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Netflix tops 200 million global subscribers

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Netflix said that it added another 8.5 million global subscribers last quarter, bringing its total number of paid subscribers globally to more than 200 million.

The big picture: Positive fourth-quarter results show Netflix's resiliency, despite increased competition and pandemic-related production headwinds.

Janet Yellen plays down debt, tax hike concerns in confirmation hearing

Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen at an event in December. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

Janet Yellen, Biden's pick to lead the Treasury Department, pushed back against two key concerns from Republican senators at her confirmation hearing on Tuesday: the country's debt and the incoming administration's plans to eventually raise taxes.

Driving the news: Yellen — who's expected to win confirmation — said spending big now will prevent the U.S. from having to dig out of a deeper hole later. She also said the Biden administration's priority right now is coronavirus relief, not raising taxes.