Should Big Brother Watch Us If He Would Keep Us Safe?

It's for your own good.

By William M Briggs Published on January 10, 2018

I have a suggestion for a new motto for China. Wo kandoa ni le. I see you.

Why? China like Britain is installing cameras in public places to track its citizens. Britain already has at least 1 surveillance camera for every 11 people, a fraction that is rising. China wants in on the photographic fun. The Washington Post reports:

The intent is to connect the security cameras that already scan roads, shopping malls and transport hubs with private cameras on compounds and buildings, and integrate them into one nationwide surveillance and data-sharing platform.

It will use facial recognition and artificial intelligence to analyze and understand the mountain of incoming video evidence; to track suspects, spot suspicious behaviors and even predict crime; to coordinate the work of emergency services; and to monitor the comings and goings of the country’s 1.4 billion people, official documents and security industry reports show.

Computers Make Mistakes

“Artificial intelligence” (a.k.a. “deep learning”) always sounds scary, but it is nothing more than old-fashioned statistical modeling done on a large scale. Because it is a form of modeling, it is imperfect. That means that when an algorithm is designed to look at a picture of Mr. Wong and say, “This is Mr. Wong,” sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will say it is you.

What harm could there be in that?

Consider that you have been incorrectly identified as standing outside a certain building where known troublemakers have been seen. The algorithm that said you were there then looks to the “Police Cloud” database that has “such data as criminal and medical records, travel bookings, online purchase and even social media comments.”

The computer next looks up the “meta data” from your phone records. This tells exactly where you were when you made every call, who you called and for how long, what device you and the other party used, whether the call was followed by any data (say, a Snapchat), and so on. The only thing the computer does not admit to knowing is what you said.

The algorithm now updates your “social credit” score, lowering it. Not only does it ding your score, but the people you called also take a small hit.

The entire process is automatic, with no way to check errors, so you’ll never know why the hiring manager rejected your application. (You won’t know at Google, either.)

We’re All Guilty

There is another possibility. The facial-recognition algorithm does not make a mistake. It really was you standing there. You may have had an innocent explanation for being at that suspicious corner. But we’re talking public safety here. Why take a chance? A suspicious corner was involved. And it’s always better to be safe than sorry, isn’t it?

Here we recall the words attributed to Cardinal Richelieu spoken in an age well before we learned to bear our souls daily on-line: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

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It is too easy through hint, insinuation, and suggestion to make anybody look guilty. Guilty of what? Of a federal crime, maybe. There are so many statutes on the books right now that professor of law Glenn Harlan Reynolds says, “You are probably breaking the law right now.” If the government wants to get you, it probably can.

It’s not only China and Britain who are tracking their citizens. The good old USA is in on the act, too. Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency tracked the meta-data of citizens’ phone records. The news caused the NSA to back off, but only slightly. As of 2015, they still grabbed over a hundred million phone records. They claim to have stopped sucking up your emails.

Spread Your Legs and Raise Your Arms

The FBI uses its Next Generation Identification System in fighting crime. Interestingly, the FBI discusses its facial-recognition algorithm’s accuracy. It “returns the correct candidate a minimum of 85 percent of the time,” but in only controlled conditions. That 85% might sound high, but it’s the wrong number. The number of false identifications is much higher, as the Post shows.

The paper also reports the USA already had “around 62 million surveillance cameras in 2016,” which is a “higher per capita penetration rate than China.” It’s good to know we’re still beating China at something.

We have already accepted the endless lines, hassles and humiliations of the TSA at airports in the name of “security.” It’s a good bet we’ll do the same for the government tracking all our movements. That means these important words of Ben Franklin will grow fainter and fainter: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

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  • Nick Stuart

    We have to understand that we will have to accept some level of risk.

    Otherwise we will have bollards, cameras, and security checkpoints everywhere. And all-seeing, never-resting computer surveillance tying everything together. And there will still be risk.

    • Paul

      Even worse risk then, those are the dream tools of a despot, especially among an unarmed populace.

  • We don’t need more cameras and regulations and SWAT teams. We need fewer Muslims and gang-bangers. If you don’t identify the problem correctly, you can never hope to correct it. Although, to the big government people, this seems to be a feature, not a bug.

  • Alice Cheshire

    Okay, we’re talking “Person of Interest” here, right?

    Now, for all those getting red in the face and nearing explosion, there has always been surveillance on Americans. J Edgar Hoover had more files than the Library of Congress. Clinton and Obama reporting followed his example. Republicans may have done this, but were more discrete and not caught. Every town had surveillance before cameras—those old folks sitting on their porches watching the world go by—they knew everything that went on (they may or may not have been aware of their role). Anyone who has lived in a small town knows there are no secrets. Apartment buildings and malls have someone who’s there and sees everything. Now we check a computer database, before we checked a people database.

    The idea that the government couldn’t get you before? McCarthyism proved that wrong. There’s never been a time when the government couldn’t get you, except when there was no government and then someone else could get you. Life is full of risk. Worry more about the complete lack of morality and constant lies than the surveillance cameras. Those are the distraction and people are freaking out just as expected.

  • brad tittle

    It is fun to note how often a blank space is identified as a face. How a female face becomes male or vice versa. It is humorous to see a relative be tagged as a different relative.

    It is also a wonder how many faces are not tagged as faces.

    Maybe things are improving.. The failures should always make us pause..

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