Welcome to a new series where we explore some of the most important stories this week from across the fields of privacy, cybersecurity, surveillance and general internet goings-ons. Don’t agree? Let us know what your picks would be on the ‘What’s up today’ thread in the forum or @ us on Twitter.
Ready? Let’s go!
Smart cities are portrayed as the future for millions. Yet there is a conversation that isn’t yet taking place openly around the fact that technology that tracks and monitors societies are likely to prove incredibly intrusive and destructive to democracy. That’s not to discount the fact that some elements of this future world will be incredibly valuable. Take the project to monitor air pollution that’s being carried out by Copenhagen Solutions Lab in collaboration with Google.
So what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot — and one story this week explored one downside in particular. A database, hosted by Chinese tech giant Alibaba, that held information relating to two housing communities in Beijing was accessed by researcher John Wetherington using a simple web browser. The data he found was pretty much as scary as you’d expect: it showed where people went and for how long, together with a mass of facial recognition data. Slightly stranger perhaps was the fact that the database also held ‘attractive’ scores for each individual.
The Chinese style of state-sponsored surveillance is highly concerning to many (including us). It’s the sort of surveillance that will never respect national boundaries: the reach of technology that enables the monitoring of everyday life is now increasingly making headway in many countries. Chip Rolley, senior director of literary programs at PEN America and director of PEN World Voices Festival, wrote a piece for the Guardian exploring this very concern. Those familiar with the early days of the internet will relate to this statement, when he says:
“While we once hoped the internet would deliver us freedom of expression, the ability to communicate freely across borders and even be a channel for dissenting views, we now see the very opposite is occurring.”
If you’re feeling smug about living many miles from the Chinese government, then it’s perhaps worth taking a look closer to home. In London, facial recognition CCTV (similar to that used in China) is now being trialled. So what happens if a passer-by doesn’t want to participate and covers his face? Well, in this case, such a desire for privacy appeared very suspicious to the police, who promptly stopped him, demanded he uncover his face for a photograph — and then followed it up with a £90 fine for disorderly conduct. The Cover and Intelligence lead at the Met has some very interesting things to say.
Ok let’s move to a good news story. We applaud the city of San Francisco, which has banned the use of facial recognition CCTV, becoming the first US city to do so. The concerns around the use of such surveillance techniques are too vast to cover in detail here. But we’ll just mention in passing the risks that the technology promotes discrimination against minorities, false positives and a basic disregard for privacy that has a chilling effect on normal everyday behaviours that erodes the human rights of individuals within societies. Here’s hoping other cities in the UK (such as London and Glasgow for example) and further afield follow suit.
And one for a laugh. Google CEO Sundar Pichai penned an opinion piece for the New York Times titled “Privacy should not be a luxury”. Bit of a change in tone from the days when the previous CEO Eric Scmidt was famously heard to predict (at the Techonomy Conference in 2010) that “true transparency and no anonymity” was the way forward for the Internet. Hmmm….
Want more? Head over to Twitter where we cover a much broader range of topics and stories plus updates on the SAFE Network every week.