Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2021

I have a chapter in a book on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics that has been published this week. I hope many of you will read the entire book, since next to climate change this may well be the biggest global political challenge we face!

The United States, which created the Internet as a defence department research project, now considers cyberspace a “domain” or potential battlefield equal in importance to land, sea, air, and outer space.

The last few weeks have seen a number of crippling cyber-attacks on the websites of prominent corporations, banks and government agencies around the world. Many of these originate in the republics of the former Soviet Union and China. And, following revelations of irresponsible Israeli exports of the malicious Pegasus software, Amnesty has highlighted surveillance technology as the biggest threat to human rights everywhere and called for a moratorium on its use.

Not too long ago, if the government wanted to know your most intimate secrets, it could seek to follow you around the clock. But that is very expensive and difficult, and could practically be deployed only against very high-priority suspects. It could search your home, but only if it first obtained a judicial warrant based on specific probable cause. It could interrogate you, but only if it had probable cause to arrest, and even then, you could assert your right to remain silent.

The Edward Snowden revelations in 2013 showed how easily the security services can go today to the  commercial services we all use- the Internet service providers, phone companies, and social networks-  and obtain from them detailed information on your every phone call, web search, e-mail, online chat, or credit card purchase, as well as your physical location whenever you are carrying your cell phone. Speech-recognition algorithms can simultaneously listen in to millions of phone calls. Computer vision algorithms can simultaneously watch millions of CCTV cameras. And algorithms that process natural language can read simultaneously millions of emails.

It has made possible dragnet surveillance of whole communities, and this is perhaps the biggest moral challenge. The Chinese are doing this with the Muslim Uighur community in the Western provinces. But the Chinese government’s data-gathering and face-recognition technology are targeting the entire population. The aim is to collect as much information as possible about every company and citizen, store it in a centralized data base, and assign a credit score to each that indicates how “trustworthy” they are. This is a draconian form of social discipline, designed to identify and punish human rights activists, political dissidents, and other so-called “anti-social elements” by denying them and their family members employment, housing, banking services, and other social benefits.  This is to date the most comprehensive effort to implement B.F. Skinner’s infamous programme of human “behaviour modification” through a conditioning system of rewards and punishments.

The big cats of the Internet industry (Google, Amazon, Facebook) regulate us more subtly, often invisibly. They mine and store our personal data in staggering quantities, and use it to customize our searches and “decide” what we see or find on the Internet. When Wall Street puts a value on Facebook or Google it is not for the services they provide, but for the data they collect and its worth to advertisers, among others.

We are learning that there are hidden costs to all those “free” services offered by the Internet giants. Indeed, we are starting to realise that when the product costs nothing, often you are the product. These are companies with some of the largest profit margins on the planet. They are not giving their services away without getting a lot in return.

Every click of the mouse, every app we choose to open, sends information about our ourselves to thousands of invisible advertisers and, often, government watchers. We are living in what Al Gore called the “stalker economy” and Shoshana Zuboff, in her best-selling book calls “surveillance capitalism”. And there is no firewall between commercial surveillance and governmental surveillance anymore.

So China is not the only country to be worried about. Anti-trust laws in the United States are impotent to reign in monopolies like the hi-tech giants that offer customers “free” services. They’ve even been allowed to enlarge their monopolies by buying up potential rivals. Google, for instance, increased its monopoly over video by buying Youtube, while Facebook bought out Instagram and WhatsApp. Yet we’ve seen that these “free” services hide the real costs to the customer, and so are anything but free.

The impact on print journalism is a cost. Our addictive devices are a cost. The narrowing of choice is a cost. Our loss of privacy has a cost. Snowdon told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that he had leaked the details of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance programme to “protect basic liberties for people around the world.”

Can we seek to redeem surveillance, quite apart from the necessary legal controls such as various Data Protection Acts? Many surveillance initiatives stem from valid social concerns: for example, health surveillance programmes, or tracking human smuggling operations, identifying paedophile rings or reducing crime on the streets. The only way it seems to me to prevent the reinforcing of an individualist conception of “autonomy or “privacy” is to recover a relational view of ourselves. Privacy must be grounded in an ethic of mutual trust and care.

Yes, I have an inviolable, subjective “core” of thoughts, feelings and practices that must be protected from coercion or manipulation; but since such thoughts, feeling and practices are socially formed, I must be open to their being questioned and criticized. And this applies to the surveillors as much as to the surveilled. Such an ethic must enable mutual transparency (within obvious limits), responsibility as well as liberty, and not generate either fear or complacency born of ignorance.

Given our corrupted humanity, powerful technologies tend to be used first for evil; and then when the powerful themselves suffer the fall-out, there are calls for their “regulation”. That is the best argument in support of the non-malicious, non-commercial “hacking” community. But who will save them from themselves, once they have tasted their own power to humble the mighty?



July 2021