Big Artificial Brother

Corporations & Governments Want to Keep an Eye on the Rest of Us

Artificial intelligence is not dangerous. Only natural intelligence is dangerous.

As we have seen in recent issues of Salvo, many fears of artificial intelligence (AI) are overblown. AI will not become conscious. We don't even know what consciousness is, in any scientific sense, let alone how to produce it. Nor will AI take over the world. Lacking a conscious self, an entity could not have a personal goal at all, let alone a grandiose one.

So now we come to the true threat posed by AI: it greatly reduces the costs and risks of mass surveillance and manipulation. Some human beings are quite sure that the world would be a better place if they knew more about our business and policed it better. Mass snooping creeps up unnoticed and becomes a way of life. Then it explodes:

• In March 2018, Facebook, a top-five tech firm, was rocked by an internet-size data privacy scandal. A political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, had improperly gained access to possibly 87 million Facebook user profiles. Facebook lost $150 billion in share value in July.1 But when asked to testify to Congress last April about his firm's failure to protect users' personal information from political meddling, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, over the course of ten hours, kept telling legislators that AI was the answer to fake news, hate speech, terrorist recruiting, security, etc.

As Sarah Jeong noted at The Verge, "It's not even entirely clear what Zuckerberg means by 'AI' here."2 He likely means "machine learning" (algorithms that can process vast amounts of data very swiftly). But the algorithms are the tools of whoever uses them, as events have dramatically demonstrated. And Facebook seems to be a slow learner, too. In August, Apple officials had to confront Facebook for violating company regulations about apps collecting data on users.3

• Then there's Google, which reads users' Google mail (Gmail). In 2017, it claimed to have stopped the practice of scanning inboxes in order to personalize ads. But it still allowed other companies to use apps to scan the inboxes, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Would those other firms include the world's biggest company, Amazon? Yes. What about other, smaller companies? It turns out that their apps only need to be "legitimate" and technically viable—a standard any competitive company can probably meet—to be permitted to scan inboxes.4

Google also doesn't mind telling you what you should and shouldn't know. Roy Spencer, author of Climate Confusion, notes that when he did a Google search for "climate skepticism," the first ten pages of results that came up contained links, not to climate skepticism, but to articles criticizing climate skepticism. By contrast, a search for "Nazi Party" yielded mostly straightforward information and commentary on Nazi beliefs.5

The Ubiquity of Surveillance

But that's just the high-tech world, right? Surely other big businesses are different . . .

Not that you'd notice. Walmart uses a scoring algorithm (NarxCare) for guidance to pharmacists to help them spot patients who may be misusing legal prescribed drugs.6 According to NPR, health insurers are tracking people's race, education, TV viewing, marital status, net worth, and more: "They're collecting what you post on social media, whether you're behind on your bills, what you order online. Then they feed this information into complicated computer algorithms that spit out predictions about how much your health care could cost them."7

But surely privacy policies protect us! You hope. In 2018, researchers who investigated the data-sharing disclosures of more than 200,000 websites found that, of 1.8 million data transmissions tracked, only 14.8 percent were sent to the third parties mentioned in the sites' policies; "the rest of the data went to third parties that users wouldn't know about even if they read the sites' policy statements."8

But governments wouldn't do that sort of thing, of course. After all, we elect them . . . Very well; West Sacramento, California, was found to be actively monitoring public social media posts in case people were discussing local problems that they were not bringing to the city's attention.9 The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained documents showing that Amazon is providing technology to and partnering with US city and county law enforcement agencies to enable AI and cloud computing systems to do real-time facial recognition via "internet-connected municipal surveillance cameras."10 Their efforts may well make the streets safer, but at what cost to privacy?

Some projects are more ambitious: the US federal government is looking at high-tech alternatives to the controversial proposed border wall with Mexico, including drones, sensors, and facial recognition technology—essentially bypassing the public political debate over policies and goals.11 Duly elected governments, not advanced artificial entities, are in charge of all this surveillance—the usual types, armed with the usual intentions.

Control & Delete

The motives are not always easy to guess, though. In recent years, Russia has aimed considerable social media mischief at the United States. What's the point? Science writer Alex Berezow ventures an explanation: "Russia is a country in inexorable decline. Its economy is roughly the same size as the combined economies of Belgium and Netherlands. Thus, causing trouble keeps it relevant."12 If that sounds odd, recall that most Americans are too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Vladimir Putin's predecessors were all too relevant. Keeping a constant media buzz going in the United States about Russia's intentions is much cheaper, easier, and safer for Putin than trying to install nuclear warheads again in U.S. territorial waters.

China, whose government's computer has only two keys, Control and Delete, is in a class by itself in these matters. Routine recognition of license plates and faces via mounted cameras or smart glasses is now part of daily life. It surveils citizens on those websites and apps it allows. Routers must be government-approved.13 And, as commentator Jonah Goldberg puts it, "China made it official: By 2020, the government will fully implement a 'social credit score' system that will use artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to monitor, reward and punish virtually every kind of activity based upon ideological criteria—chiefly, loyalty to the state."14 Even prospective sperm donors, it seems, must "love the socialist motherland" to qualify.15

But that's just within China, right? Wrong. This year, China pressured various international firms into removing references to Taiwan as a separate country from their websites and apps. And it went after T-shirts sold in Canada that "failed to reflect the correct map of China"; i.e., the shirts' maps "omitted" disputed south Tibet, independent Taiwan, and the South China Sea.16

China isn't keeping the "good news" about Control and Delete to itself. It is currently supplying Zimbabwe, an African country well-known for human-rights abuses, with advanced AI technology, in return for giving a Chinese firm access to the facial-recognition database by which Zimbabwe can now surveil its citizens.17

A Huge Battle Ahead

Is there something about artificial intelligence that brings out the control freak in people? If so, will the Chinese government's approach win? George Gilder, a philosopher of technology and author of Life After Google, thinks not: he argues that, via new technologies like blockchain, people will take ownership of their own data, cutting out the giant "middle man" of current big social media.18 Already, it is rumored, Chinese people are finding ways to bypass the government. But we should be in no doubt that it will be a huge battle for all of us, one in which technocracy, not technology, remains the true threat.

1. Katie Canales and Shayanne Gal, "It's not just Facebook: Customer confidence in social media companies has deteriorated overall," Business Insider (Aug. 28, 2018):
2. Sarah Jeong, "AI is an excuse for Facebook to keep messing up," The Verge (Apr. 13, 2018):
3. Phil Baker, "Facebook-Owned Security App Caught Snooping on iPhones" PJ Media (Aug. 23, 2018):
4. Denyse O'Leary, "AI Can Mean Ultimate Big Surveillance," Mind Matters (July 12, 2018):
5. John Stossel, "Social Media Censorship II," Townhall (Aug. 29, 2018):
6. Josh Bloom, "Big Brother Walmart Is Watching Your Meds Very Carefully. And Not Just Painkillers," American Council on Science and Health (May 11, 2018):
7. Marshall Allen, "Health Insurers Are Vacuuming Up Details About You—And It Could Raise Your Rates," NPR (July 17, 2018):
8. Maria Temming, "Website privacy policies don't say much about how they share your data," ScienceNews (Apr. 27, 2018):
9. Timothy Meads, "Creepy: City Deploys System That Scrolls Through Publicly Available Social Media Posts," Townhall (May 12, 2018):
10. Peter Newman, "Amazon and law enforcement are using cloud-based AI for surveillance," Business Insider (May 24, 2018):
11. Olivia Solon, "'Surveillance society': Has technology at the US-Mexico border gone too far?", The Guardian (June 13, 2018):
12. Alex Berezow, "Postmodernism Weaponized: Russia's Assault on American Science," American Council on Science and Health (Aug. 28, 2018):
13. Sean O'Kane, "China wants to track citizens' cars with mandatory RFID chips," The Verge (June 13, 2018):
14. Jonah Goldberg, "When Will Machine-like Thinking Prompt Moral Panic?", Townhall (Apr. 27, 2018):
15. "China sperm bank demands Communist Party loyalty from donors," BBC (Apr. 6, 2018):
16. J. Michael Cole, "China's Bullying of International Firms Reaches New Low With Gap T-Shirt Incident," Taiwan Sentinel (May 15, 2018):
17. Denyse O'Leary, "Will AI Liberate or Enslave Developing Countries?", Mind Matters (Aug. 20, 2018):
18. Denyse O'Leary, "George Gilder: Life After Google Will Be Okay," Mind Matters (Aug. 14, 2018):

is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #48, Spring 2019 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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