By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)
March 17, 2023
Twenty years ago, the United States government still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, began scaling up its surveillance capacity. There was "Total Information Awareness." There was even a controversial plan to enlist letter carriers and even librarians to keep an eye on the populace.
Back then, I found this to be somewhat laughable. Even if the U.S. government was able to scoop up all sorts of information off the Internet and telephones, it will represent a massive trove of data that no humans could go through and analyze. Even if the Intelligence Community enlisted the entire population of the United States that would be humanly impossible. So my reaction to this was, what could they do?
Surveillance cameras were still recording on magnetic tapes. Those VHS tapes could be recorded for up to 24 hours per cassette using a specially designed recorder, but the video was grainy and black-and-white. Usually, those tapes were kept for a few days and recorded over unless there was an incident.
Sure, there were some disturbing signs of massive surveillance even in that decade and the following. TSA employed so-called "Behavioral Detections Officers" (BDO) at major airports. 11 years ago, a British tourist was detained by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection because of an innocuous tweet.
But for the most part, the pervasiveness of surveillance was limited by human labor and time. This required the government to use discretion and carefully choose which cases to pursue.
20 years forward, we are in the era of generative artificial intelligence. And so did the technological capacity for massive real-time surveillance grow exponentially.
Your favorite social media platform is now capable of instantly analyzing every photo you upload, and even identifying objects in the pictures, and recognizing and even translating any words appearing in the photos. YouTube automatically looks for controversial or offensive words and even creates automatically-generated closed captions.
Surveillance cameras are now miniaturized, cheaper, and ubiquitous. Many homes already have Ring cameras on the front doors and their videos are of high resolution and include audio. The recordings are often shared with local police departments. When you go shopping, many big retailers are now using not only closed-circuit cameras but also facial recognition capacities. Reportedly Walmart deploys facial recognition in its self-checkout machines and it is used for purposes beyond loss prevention. Public transit systems use surveillance cameras with audio recording capabilities in every vehicle and every corner of their facilities. There is no telling how long the recordings are retained, or whether the video and audio are analyzed for some unknown purposes.
It is often said that every resident of the United States, knowingly or unknowingly, commits at least three felonies each day, due to the complexity of American criminal laws (they are not in a singular criminal code, but in every section of the United States Code, in the Code of Federal Regulations, as well as in the state and territorial laws). The United States already incarcerates more people than any other country on Earth. The only reason why everyone isn't in prison is that there remains a limit to human capacity.
In recent years, many police departments in America are experiencing staffing shortages. It takes a year and a half to train a recruit to become a full-fledged policeman. It is expensive to hire more cops. Public safety expenditures are always one of the top three spendings in the state and local government budgets along with education and health. So it becomes very tempting for politicians to consider AI-assisted, automated policing. Given the capacity of GPT4, it may even be a real possibility for district attorneys to enlist the help of AI to prosecute misdemeanors and lesser felonies. The law enforcement community always loves having a "force multiplier"; artificial intelligence could revolutionize policing -- in a very bad, dystopian way.
With the combination of AI and ubiquitous mass surveillance, no one will be safe from the full weight of police state violence. Even as I write this, ACLU has uncovered the FBI's plan to purchase a facial recognition system that can identify and track individuals from a mile away. If you're skeptical about this just look at Communist China. CCP and its Public Security Bureau are years ahead of the Western world when it comes to technologies in policing.
Governments worldwide and the politicians who run them have always tried to play God. Their inclination is to surveil anything that moves and regulate anything that exists. Their hubris and thirst for power know no end. While an increasing number of politicians now call for regulating AI, they will likely not extend this to governments.
The time to fight back is now. A free society can only exist when the powers of the state are extremely limited and are constrained by the constitutional order, the rule of law, and a high degree of ethics. The American constitutional tradition and its English predecessor understood this (although in recent decades, Great Britain has developed such a penchant for intrusive surveillance).
Police departments beginning to integrate AI tech into body cameras (CBS/KDKA, March 11, 2023)
Retail stores are packed with unchecked facial recognition (The Verge, July 14, 2021)
A nanny state idiocracy
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