Friday, February 21, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – II

We saw last week new and often hyper-accurate ways that people can be tracked.  What is happening with companies providing this technology, the laws, and our government’s involvement?

In “Facebook to Pay $550 Million to Settle Facial Recognition Suit,” by Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac in the January 29th New York Times, we learned how that gigantic data-collecting company ran afoul of a law in just one state, Illinois, “by harvesting facial data for Tag Suggestions from the photos of millions of users in the state without their permission and without telling them how long the data would be kept.”  You have used that facility if you have posted pictures there and wanted to assign names, usually of your friends, to faces in them; I had thought, naively perhaps, that those were only the ones already on my own page.  Although this law was passed in 2008, there still aren’t many like it elsewhere.  The next day, “Facebook’s facial-recognition settlement amount breaks record” (Fox Business) showed in effect that this is almost certainly the first of many huge judgments.

In “The Government Uses ‘Near Perfect Surveillance’ Data on Americans,” in the February 7th New York Times, we found out that not all this work is in the private sector.  Apparently, “immigration and border enforcement” can also involve tracking “the movements of millions of cellphones in America.”  The situation discussed last week of smartphone apps making it routine for users to provide such information, thereby “consenting to future uses that they could never predict” with data “opaque and largely unregulated,” means federal authorities can use information with impunity, though a 2018 Supreme Court ruling may eventually be found to prevent that.  Otherwise, per this piece, “it is inconceivable that tactics turned against undocumented immigrants won’t eventually be turned to the enforcement of other laws.” 

Over twenty years ago I learned about an American company with $2 billion in annual sales which I and most others had never heard of, its mission to make McDonald’s French fries.  The surveillance industry has spawned many such hidden concerns.  One was reported on by Kashmir Hill in an article, also in the Times, “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It,” published January 18th and updated February 10th.  The firm is Clearview AI, which uses its three-billion-image database to identify people in submitted photos.  Laws have nothing to say about that practice, as Clearview AI’s pictures were publicly available, taken from Facebook and “millions of other websites.” 

This company’s practice apparently works quite well, able to overcome, in some cases, hats and glasses.  It has also had spectacular successes with law enforcement, particularly with the Indiana State Police who, after “experimenting with Clearview,” determined a perpetrator who “did not have a driver’s license and hadn’t been arrested as an adult, so he wasn’t in government databases,” almost immediately after a shooting, thanks to “a bystander” who “recorded the crime on a phone.”  Clifton, New Jersey authorities, during a free Clearview trial, identified “shoplifters, an Apple Store thief, and a good Samaritan who had punched out a man threatening people with a knife,” and elsewhere had found the names of “a person who was accused of sexually abusing a child whose face appeared in the mirror of someone’s else (sic) gym photo; the person behind a string of mailbox thefts in Atlanta; a John Doe found dead on an Alabama sidewalk; and suspects in multiple identity-fraud cases at banks.”

Aside from seeming like law enforcement’s new best friend, abuse of this technology is only a step away.  It would be easy to determine when people are away from their homes, which may or may not have security systems.  It can identify people joining radical political gatherings, going to places known for selling illegal drugs, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, walking into brothels legal or illegal, presumably patronizing gay bars, or even turning up at unusual places of worship.  You can brainstorm more. 

That leaves us with next week’s issue – how should we deal with modern surveillance?

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