The idea in a nutshell

  • Most of us now know that very little of what we have or do in the digital world is private.
  • Every day, there is an announcement of a new piece of technology which will improve our lives.
  • However, very few of us (and even fewer of our elected officials) understand the technology fully, let alone the ramifications of it.
  • A number of factors have driven a parallel rise in surveillance technology.
  • Critically, surveillance technology has now connected the online snooping we knew about with the ability to track, identify and monitor us at an individual level, in real time, in the real world.
  • Some factors influencing the growth in surveillance capabilities include China, law enforcement requirements and Artificial Intelligence.
  • In part two of this article, I give examples of surveillance technology that you might not be familiar with and consider some of the ramifications.

We already know that any of our electronic communications can be intercepted.

In 2013 Edward Snowden, the famous whistleblower and ex-CIA contractor who leaked US Military secrets, revealed the extent to which Western governments surveilled the electronic communications of their citizens. The details of the documents he leaked were taken up and published by the Guardian and at the time, prompted a great deal of debate on the extent to which those levels of surveillance capability were warranted.

Essentially, what Snowden said was that any digital communication could be intercepted by the authorities using the tie-ins they had to phone companies and the back-door access they had to many of the world’s technology companies.

Similarly, in March 2018 Facebook’s share price fell 14% following outcry from an astonished public when they were told that Cambridge Analytica, an analytics agency employed by the Trump team in the presidential elections two years prior, had exerted influence on the Social Media platform’s users and could potentially have influenced the outcome of the election.

As John Oliver entertainingly points out in the video above, we’re not always great at remembering who exactly it was that raised the issue of mass electronic surveillance. From my own experience however, it seems to me most people now know that in the “Digital Realm”, there is virtually no privacy.

Technology puppies

In a sales context, I’ve heard it said that it’s easier to sell puppies than dogs.

Verizon, the US Telecommunications company has a separate part of its business called ‘MapQuest’. They’re the second biggest provider of advanced cartography services in the world, after Google Maps.

MapQuest is close to the release of an app called ‘Verizon Hum’ to both the Apple and Google app stores. When users install it and position their phone on their car’s dashboard, the app will transmit (and record) real time images of what’s happening on the road, in front of the user’s vehicle. The service provides telematics on driving to the people who install the app. People are provided a monthly report which details their driving habits. Images can be sent from any connected device with a camera – i.e. almost any phone these days. In exchange for providing the images, users will be given live traffic updates, among other things.

At the server end of the connected dashboard cameras, MapQuest intend to use the video content they capture to update their maps. Real world environments change all the time. Road works change the usefulness of road corridors for a period of time, new buildings and paths are created, and traffic is re-routed to keep it going. MapQuest will use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to collate the changes. The result – more accurate maps, more of the time – could be valuable to the companies creating driverless cars who have to navigate the landscape.

MapQuest’s product is just one. McKinsey say that 70% of companies will have adopted AI solutions by 2030.

News stories like this one appear almost every day. Typically, each story follows a similar arc. In some part of the world, a team has put together a new technology service, adding a digital layer to a previously ‘offline’ experience like driving. They’re good news ‘puppies’ sold with tag lines about improving the lives of humanity and are often associated with huge economic benefits. The sum of these innovations, however, has created monitoring capabilities far beyond what most people realize. That’s the dog.

What is surveillance technology?

Surveillance technology captures details about an individual from data and information collected. Surveillance is usually done with a specific goal in mind. In essence, the more data ‘they’ can gather on their target, the easier it is for them to influence the target (potentially you) to do what they want.

Surveilled suspects can be found, apprehended and detailed or alternatively, can have their minds changed, without ever concluding that they had been watched and then influenced.

What’s changed? Digitization and comprehension.

I think what has changed is the type of thing we can understand on an information level.

Things we considered too complex to be broken down in to their information components are now ‘cracked.’ The human genome is one example, but AI capabilities (which, by the way, are still evolving and in their very early days of basic capability) can now deconstruct and digitize human movements, identify and respond appropriately to spoken words, and track and identify us in real time.

In privacy discussions, we talk about people ‘opting in’. No-one has opted in to the new levels of surveillance which now surround us. Few even understand the extent of the problem.

Republican Senator Adam Kinzinger was honest enough to admit that he understood about half of what was explained to him on technology matters.

Senator Adam Kinzinger said in the Washington Post that he understands about 50% of the technology explained to him. To be fair, the subject was Quantum Computing so…..
Source : The Washington Post – Link Below.

  • The Washington Post quoted one Senator honest enough to say that he understood only around 50% of the technology that was explained to them. (It’s worth mentioning that the topic of the time was Quantum Computing which is at the more difficult end of the concepts to which he might be exposed.)

The senator is not alone. Roy Morgan research shows how little we understand the technology we use, specifically the data mined from us.

We, too, struggle to understand the implications of the technology we use.
Source : Roy Morgan, link above.


: Some statistics about people’s understanding of technology matters.

Some surprising information about the level of technology understanding people have.

  • At an individual citizen / consumer level, Roy Morgan research suggests that 90% of Australians don’t understand the data that apps like Facebook and Instagram take from their phone.
  • 7% of people have a ‘Good Understanding’ of the ways companies use their data. Interestingly, in the last 2 years the proportion of people who say they do not understand where and how organizations use their data has RISEN from 31% to 48%

What’s driving the change in Surveillance technology?

There appear to be 4 linked areas which come up again and again when the subject of surveillance is discussed.

At least 4 forces are taking us towards a more surveilled future.

Legitimate law enforcement, your smartphone and authoritarian governments, all underpinned by advances in AI pattern matching, are combining to make our future more surveilled.
Source : Me

  • China:
    The People’s Republic is using its more authoritarian hold over its citizens to its advantage and investing big in surveillance tech. China may provide clues as to how our surveilled future could look.
  • Connected devices:
    The proliferation of connected devices – especially smartphones, which deserve their own attention – see part 2.
  • Law enforcement:
    Information has always been used to solve crimes. The FBI was established to do exactly that, to use new types of forensic data analysis to catch criminals. There’s just more available now.

Of course, where these things overlap – and there are examples of just that in part 2, as well – the effects can be accentuated.

Underneath each of those drivers of change, sits one thing which magnifies the effect of all of them.

  • Artificial Intelligence – AI :
    In some senses, the value of AI is in picking the signal from the noise in huge data sets. Digitized data in any form can be fed in for processing by AI algorithms and salient patterns can be identified. This puts a lot of the random variables that we ascribe to individuals as unique behavior and personality, in to the realm of analysis. Every aspect of ‘you’ is exhibited in either an audio, or visual or written way. Each can be captured electronically. In essence, when used for surveillance, AI can turn digital data about us that has been captured through phones, video cameras, microphones into a unique data set which can be identified as ‘you’ (to some non-perfect likelihood – for example, we are 94% sure this is a picture of <person>. )

The key point – surveillance can now tacitly identify your identity, location and movements in the physical world

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is the fact that the sum of these technology improvements have on our digital and physical lives. They’ve gone beyond what Snowden told us a mere 5 years ago.

In the next article, I provide specific examples of surveillance technology and point out the ramifications of each, and then the sum of their facility. Some examples include the ability of AI algorithms to identify people’s faces, voices and gait (the way they walk) to identify us individually from a crowd.

Given those capabilities, MapQuest is being sold as a technological improvement to our lives. It could easily be adapted to be a global monitoring tool to establish the location of every person in a city or country, if deployed in larger numbers. In fact, China is doing something remarkably similar to that as we speak.