Consumer surveillance cameras are everywhere now, and they’re capturing moments we otherwise would never have known happened.
The computers are watching.
Imagine if you lost your keys and instead of fishing around in the couch cushions, you could just pull out your phone and search for them. Just a quick, textual query with a quick response that they’re on your desk, you doofus. This is not only possible; it’s possible now, and it’s almost as intriguing as it is terrifying.
Today at Microsoft Build, the software giant’s annual conference for developers, Microsoft showed off exactly this sort of tech. By melding things that have already been around for a few years—machine-learning powered image recognition and consumer-grade cameras—with the ludicrous computing horsepower in the cloud, Microsoft is able to index people and things in a room in real time. What that means, practically, is that if you can point a camera at it, you can search it:
Once you can identify people and objects by feeding the computers images of Bob and jackhammers so they can learn what each of those things look like, you can start applying a framework of rules and triggers on top of the real world. Only [Certified Employees] can carry the [Jackhammer] and [Bob] is a [Certified Employee] so [Bob] is allowed to carry the [Jackhammer]. The limits to what kind of rules you can make are effectively arbitrary.
It’s extremely impressive, and Microsoft’s pitch for using this technology on factory floors and in hospitals belies another truth: it’s also extremely terrifying. The cliché here is to gesture at notions of Skynet, but the real dangers are far more grounded than some kill-all-humans fantasy.
The privacy implications, which Microsoft didn’t venture to mention on stage, are chilling even in a hospital or factory floor or other workplace. Yes, systems like this could ensure no patient collapses on a floor out of sight or that new hires aren’t juggling chainsaws for fun. But it also would make it trivial to pull up statistics on how any employee spends her day—down to the second. Even if it is ostensibly about efficiency, this sort of data can betray all sorts of private information like health conditions or employees interpersonal relationships, all that with incredible precision and at a push of a button. And if the system’s not secure from outside snooping? Woof. The concerns explode exponentially.
And of course the creepiness only increases if you imagine the spread of this technology to places like the home,though at least there users would theoretically have to opt in. That is, unless a hacker or company decides to surreptitiously apply this sort of computer vision to the cameras already in your home or just steal the footage and apply the machine eyes after the fact.
it’s a sort of instant, god-like omnipotence
Perhaps most concerning though, is the idea of this tech in the public sphere, where relative privacy is a given but only thanks to obscurity. You can be effectively “alone” in a mall or coffee shop only because it is difficult to look for you. If applied to security systems and other live video feeds, this sort of technology gives those with the power to search through it a sort of instant, god-like omnipotence. That has chilling implications whether that power is in the hands of a disgruntled IT guy or the FBI. All that’s to say nothing of the implications for ad-targeting, and all the companies that would have a vested interest on building a dossier about you specifically, not because you are particularly interesting but just because you buy things sometimes.
Artists and technologists have been grappling with this coming privacy nightmare for years with anti-surveillance gear that runs the gamut from makeup to glasses to gadgets. It’s been easy to dismiss these measures as art or dystopian fantasy, but it’s getting more difficult not to take them seriously.
There’s no doubt, of course, that dynamic image recognition would have huge benefits and could save countless lives much in the way Microsoft’s demo indicates. But without strict rules or regulations, these smart cameras could cross all kinds of privacy lines before we even know it.
The tech is moving fast, and sooner or later, cameras like this are undoubtedly coming to a workplace near you, and Skynet is the least of our worries.
THE UN & IT’S STAND ON SURVEILLANCE OF PEOPLE
The UN General Assembly’s human rights committee has unanimously adopted a resolution sponsored by Brazil and Germany to protect the right to privacy against unlawful surveillance, following months of reports about US eavesdropping abroad.
The symbolic resolution, which seeks to extend personal privacy rights to all people, followed a series of disclosures of US eavesdropping on foreign leaders, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that surprised and angered allies.
Brazil’s Ambassador Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said the resolution “establishes for the first time that human rights should prevail irrespective of the medium, and therefore need to be protected online and offline”.
The resolution expresses deep concern at “the negative impact” that such surveillance, “in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights”.
German Ambassador Peter Wittig asked: “Is the human right to privacy still protected in our digital world? And should everything that is technologically feasible, be allowed?”
The consensus adoption of the resolution means it will also unanimously pass the whole 193-member General Assembly in December. General Assembly resolutions aren’t legally binding, but reflect world opinion and carry political weight.
The United States did not fight the measure after it engaged in lobbying last week with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which comprise the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group, to dilute some of the draft resolution’s language.
The key compromise dropped the contention that the domestic and international interception and collection of communications and personal data, “in particular massive surveillance,” may constitute a human rights violation.
US delegate Elizabeth Cousens told the committee that the United States welcomed Brazil and Germany’s sponsorship of the resolution and was pleased to support “privacy rights and the right to freedom of expression”.
The draft resolution directs the UN human rights chief to report to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on the protection and promotion of privacy “in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance… including on a mass scale”.
Last week, five major human rights and privacy groups – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access and Privacy International – said this will guarantee that the privacy issue stays on the front burner at the United Nations.
Human Rights Watch general counsel Dina PoKempner said that though the resolution was “watered down” it was still a “vital first step toward stigmatising indiscriminate global surveillance as a wide-scale violation of human rights”.
The director of the human rights programme at the American Civil Liberties Union, Jamil Dakwar, said: “Yet again, the US is paying lip service to human rights when it comes to holding intelligence services accountable overseas. It is regrettable that the US is investing time to circumvent the universal human right to privacy rather than setting a new course by ending dragnet surveillance.”
The US has been trying to calm tensions with Brazil and Germany over the reported spying.
Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington after classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden showed that the NSA hacked the computer network of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras and scooped up data on emails and telephone calls flowing through the country.
Merkel and other European leaders expressed anger after reports that the NSA allegedly monitored Merkel’s cellphone and swept up millions of French telephone records.