Alvan's digital garden

AI Surveillance: Ethical Landmines in Digital Panopticon

Hi all! How are you? Yes, I am interested in your answer, and you can contact me to share how are you.

Recently I got invited to an event called “TechBrains 2023”. The theme for the event was - not surprisingly - AI. Ah yes, today even philosophy podcasts talk about AI (thanks for the quote, brother). Anyways, I was excited to be invited, so quickly chose my topic. Uhm, something about AI and Free Software, ethical challenges… Yes! Found it. “AI Surveillance: Ethical Landmines in Digital Panopticon”.

This is the written version of the talk that I will be giving. Hope you’ll enjoy reading as much as I loved writing this.

Some intro about me and the topic…

…I’m sure some of you have heard about the term “Panopticon”. It basically is an architectural model for designing prisons. And the special thing about it is how it utilizes information asymmetry to enforce inmates to behave. It is a psychological game played on prisoners. As a result of not knowing when they are being watched, people tend to unconsciously assume they are being watched always. Just like how I don’t dance in elevators. Or make silly faces on mirror.

The good thing is, because of the ethical issues and psychological consequences it was causing, panopticons were never mainstream, and rare instances are all closed now 1 2 3 (as far as I could research).

But hey, this is humanity. We have got to have bad things around. And behold! The bad thing is - I assure you - in every article talking about the Panopticon also includes paragraphs about modern technology, social media and big corporations.

You can already tell where I am going with this - the mass surveillance that is happening right now. We are always being watched, tracked, listened, followed and other horrible(?) stuff. The social media platforms, enormous networks of people that they build and maintain. All these algorithms, and how they can easily predict our interests, health issues, things that drive us. These all seem like great tools; I like seeing stuff I’m interested in, in my feed. I love having useful - targeted ads. There is this huge misconception - we think that they operate with only the data that we explicitly disclosed to them. This is not the case at all.. Here is the catch. They can’t do all of these useful stuff for free! And no way the data I typed into inputs is enough.

Shoshana Zuboff - the author of the book called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” states this very clearly. With the help of surveillance capitalism corporations hoard ridiculous amount of data, that they later use to train massive machine learning models. And what do they do with this? They utilize these models and come up with more granular level of surveillance capabilities. I hope you caught the feedback loop pattern here. So, why do they do this? They compete(!) on the only true finite resource: our attention spans.

As the book’s title states. The age of surveillance capitalism works by hijacking our attention and influencing us. To make us buy something, vote for someone, be angry about something, or internalize an idea.

Based on my last sentence, you might be in the illusion of us being on top of the “food” chain. But sadly, no. We are - as they call us - users. Just a number. Or maybe a string id. I’m sure they are not using this incremental integer IDs anymore. We are just another nodes in these networks.

So far I was talking about online surveillance capitalism. This is a huge part of the thing but not the only one. Here is another misconception: we assume that they are surveilling us only in digital world. Again, this also is not the case.

Let’s not go far from our pockets. You all know what those devices are capable of and even are doing non-stop. It is not a coincidence that Richard Stallman had called cell phones “Stalin’s Dream” 4 and he never carries one around. It is simply too easy to locate people with this technology. Or we can rant about the Google Earth, how it is originated from a tool called Keyhole by CIA5. Or Pokemon Go being a Google’s project. Anyways..

But as Stallman does, people can just not carry a phone around. Or keep it in flight mode - which also doesn’t help. Corporations and governments were aware of this limitation and therefore, they invested on the computer vision technologies. With the help of this technology, computers now can “see” - what a surprise - track people! I don’t think I need to talk more about this issue, as we all are quite aware of this. We have all seen these videos from China, how they track, identify people from CCTV camera footage.

But here is a counter argument to my speech. A knife is to cook delicious meals, what can we do if a few are using it to kill people. Of course, I totally do agree that modern AI and its applications have decreased the criminalities, are being used to catch bad guys, make society a safe place. But this argument in itself, begs the question of “how much individual freedom would you trade for security?”

This is not just a question for policymakers, developers or scholars to think about, but for each and every one of us. Our collective response to this question will define our future, whether it is utopian 1984, or the future we see in movies with high tech and thriving life quality. I urge you all to discuss this matter passion, and bring the balance - the yin and yang - back again.

Thank you.