What does freedom mean when computers know your face and track your movements?

The fear: Artificial intelligence will boost the power of surveillance, effectively making privacy obsolete and opening the door to a wide range of abuses.

What could go wrong: AI-driven surveillance may prove so valuable to those in power that they can’t resist using it. Employers could use it to maximize worker efficiency. Criminals could use it to blackmail victims. Politicians could use it to crush opposition, officials to oppress the poor or weak. A tyrannical government could spy on private moments and grade everything citizens do in terms of how favorable it is to Big Brother.

Behind the worries: Digital surveillance has become pervasive. Some surveillance systems are alarmingly prone to false positives and negatives, and they readily can be subverted to serve hidden agendas.

  • Smartphone applications track your location, browsing history, and even mine your contact data, thanks to the permissions you give them in exchange for free apps.
  • More than half of all US companies monitor their employees — including email monitoring and biometric tracking — according to a 2018 report by Gartner.
  • AI surveillance is used by local, state, or national governments in over 40 percent of the world’s countries, from liberal democracies to despotic autocracies, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • In the U.S., moves to ban some or all government uses of face recognition are proceeding at local, state, and federal levels.

How scared should you be: If you use the internet, own a smartphone, pay with credit, or hold a job, odds are you’re being watched. Whether that’s a sign of pernicious things to come or an increasingly efficient society is an open question.

What to do: The AI community can play a central role in working with lawmakers to develop rules about how data is collected and AI is used to analyze it. In June, for instance, AI experts presented the European Parliament with a 48-page strategy for limiting threats to privacy without curtailing innovation.


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