Back in February 2021 – that was a long time ago, wasn’t it? – the largest national issue we faced was the rapidly growing capability of people, companies, institutions, and our governments to track us. Indeed, that month I wrote a three-part series on electronic surveillance. Since the pandemic started, this concern has almost disappeared from the press. What have been the exceptions?
If it were released when we could deal with it more comprehensively, Shoshana Zuboff’s January 29th New York Times “The Coup We Are Not Talking About” would be a good place to start. The author called for an end to the situation in which “companies can stake a claim to people’s lives as free raw material for the extraction of behavioral data, which they then declare their private property,” as it has been followed by “epistemic inequality, defined as the difference between what I can know and what can be known about me” and “coordinated streams of disinformation,” to result in life where “epistemic dominance is institutionalized, overriding democratic governance with computational governance by private surveillance capital.” Ultimately, “if we are to defeat the epistemic coup, then democracy must be the protagonist,” through “the democratic rule of law” and recognizing that “new conditions summon new rights” and “unprecedented harms demand unprecedented solutions.” As with the Covid-19 effort, we will probably need to take more chances with less-than-100%-proven solutions.
Soon afterwards, the Times also published Cade Metz and Kashmir Hill’s “Here’s a Way to Learn if Facial Recognition Systems Used Your Photos” (January 31st). Well, sometimes. Anyone can use the tool Exposing.AI to determine if specific pictures were involved, but only if they “were posted to Flickr, and they need a Flickr username, tag or internet address.” There are of course billions of photos online, and almost any could, legally or not, be stored for identification.
Now, near the beginning of anti-surveillance legislation, “Massachusetts is one of the first states to create rules around facial recognition in criminal investigations” (The New York Times, March 1st). There, currently, “police first must get a judge’s permission before running a face recognition search,” and who can do such is limited. Other cities, though, including Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, and Minneapolis, already “have banned police use of the technology” entirely.
Early this month, per “The Lesson to Learn From Apple’s Tool to Flag Child Sex Abuse” (Brian X. Chen, The New York Times, August 11th), “Apple introduced a software tool for iPhones to flag cases of child sex abuse” by tracking uploads from “a database of known child pornography” to that company’s iCloud storage utility. The title is inaccurate, though, as child abuse is not the same as viewing or even moving photos originating from others. There are easy countermeasures, mainly using “a hybrid approach to storing your data,” but the issue here, whether people not under investigation can be electronically surveilled, is at best ripe for a legal challenge and at worst is clearly against the law. The slippery slope – what other crimes could people be monitored for, what sources can be flagged, and in what other ways could activity be examined – is obvious, and is once again a subject for clarification, discussion, and, with state boundaries meaningless here, for setting national policy.
At the same time, the coronavirus has resurged, with, despite over half of Americans fully vaccinated, threats to set new all-time highs in hospitalizations and new cases. The seven-day-average of the latter has surged more than 13-fold since its July 5th low. Everyone is tired of wearing masks, and few, though some, of those refusing the vaccine have relented. Even assuming that those who have had the shots continue to be safe, we could easily be looking at another six months of national emphasis and distraction. Where will electronic surveillance be when Covid-19 largely leaves us alone? We don’t know, but it, instead of the virus, may then be out of control. We need help there quicker – will we get it?