If you are used to posting frequently across your social media channels, your Stories are always up to date and you’ve read and retweeted the funniest trending memes by noon today, you’ll know that as much as you’re putting out there, you are equally receiving back. And it’s not a Big Brother type scenario—it’s those you are endearingly commenting on their selfies saying “Sis” and referring to as “Auntie” online.
Now imagine you have nearly 11.5 million people watching you on both YouTube and Instagram. 2.3 million favouring your tweets and another nearly 200 hundred thousand liking your videos on Facebook alone. That is the cyber reality of 19-year-old makeup artist and beauty YouTuber James Charles.
Recognised across the internet for his thick brows, contoured (and highlighted to the gods) cheekbones and an advocate for boys wearing makeup, James Charles is also a CoverGirl, entertainer and has worked with the likes of other influential names such as Jeffree Star and Liza Koshy to name a few. But just like many other lifestyle YouTubers, Charles’ fame is based on his life—or the one he chooses to put out there. His makeup reviews and fun challenges on YouTube are one of the ways to get your fix of him; with his wider social media presence full of his day-to-day activities, outfits, events and the people in his life.
Charles is the nouveau kind of new money: his celebrity is based on doing makeup looks, from the relatable to the highly skilled art on one’s face, presented on the biggest global video sharing channel anyone can access. But with growth in recognition to millions and collaborations with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, he’s gone from being attainable to aspirational in a matter of three years. Yet what Charles is selling is not just makeup or his views on taking down conventional beauty standards for men and women. Just like his contemporaries, the premise for how Charles truly makes his money comes from continuously sharing his personal life with the world. It does not come as a surprise then that the YouTube influencer is battling with his privacy offline.
Recently, Charles shared a tweet instructing fans not to visit his home following a frightening security breach. The tweet said “I will not hug you, I will not take a photo with you, and I absolutely will not sign your palette. It is extremely disrespectful & makes me feel very unsafe in my own home. Respect people’s privacy, it’s really not that hard”. Charles’ message seems clear—in conventional settings—but are the blurred lines really that easy to understand if a fundamental aspect of your fame is laid in sharing your private life with your fans, especially if a majority of them are Gen Z teenagers who have grown up with influencers like Charles as part of their norm?
Some would argue it’s contradictory for Charles to ask for privacy when he has made it his business to be so public and even built a career on welcoming the world into his life. For those wondering if he stopped posting frequently after asking for more privacy, of course, Charles couldn’t because this is technically his source of means. The beauty YouTuber continued with regular programming six hours after making his statement, which later went viral on Twitter (a modern-day Catch22 if we ever saw one). Surely the concept of privacy has changed if, on the one hand, you’d like to be left alone in your home and on the other hand, fans are greeted with “Hi Sisters!” from Charles’ bedroom on a daily basis.
The difference between Charles, as an influencer, asking for privacy and a celebrity with a profession such as acting, for example, is that an actor’s product is their character and films, whereas Charles is selling himself and his day-to-day life. Arguably, just like the Kardashians, the Jenners, or any other reality TV star, people should be granted privacy regardless of what they may be selling but actually, I believe this status quo of disregard to personal boundaries comes from an over familiarisation with these figures, which is innate to the influencer culture they are a part of.
In 1999, sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild, Hollywood actors legally were allowed the law of privacy after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Is it time then for this law to be amended as influencers such as James Charles have completely rehashed the definition of new entertainment, with many YouTubers and influencers also struggling to maintain their privacy While the majority of Charles’ audience clearly respects his personal space (as it’s only the odd one or two followers who showed up at his home and not 11 million), privacy becomes extremely hard to attain when it looks like you already have the world over for dinner.
China has just undergone its annual Spring Festival, also known around the world for being the biggest human migration on the planet with nearly 3 billion passenger trips made into the country between the end of January and the beginning of March. For the special occasion, the Chinese government provided police officers in megacities such as Zhengzhou, with a brand new AI technology device that is meant to facilitate the recognition of wanted criminals in no longer than 100 milliseconds.
As the travel rush for the Lunar New Year fills the nation’s train stations, officers have been wearing facial recognition sunglasses, the GLXSS ME, which is an AI appliance that enables the police to track suspect citizens even in the most crowded of locations. According to a report published on the Wall Street Journal, during the testing period of this technology, the Chinese police were able to capture seven suspects, and 26 individuals who were travelling with false identities.
Produced by the Beijing-based company LLVision Technology Co, which employs former masterminds from Google, Microsoft, Intel, and China Aeronautics, these glasses signal the next step in government surveillance. “GLXSS Force has been put into combat service. Many successful results are reported, such as seized suspects and criminal vehicles.” Reads the LLVision website. The mobile surveillance device, which is what the company calls these special specs, has certainly been proven successful in tracking suspects, but what about the unauthorised profiling of other citizens?
The specs are the most recent software introduced into China’s increasing AI-based social surveillance agenda, which is becoming particularly committed to facial recognition technologies that target citizens. In recent years, China has been investing millions into the development of tracking technologies, with the most obvious and striking example being its Social Credit System, a points system that gives individuals a score out of 800-900 for behaving as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ citizens. By using over 200 million CCTV cameras and rigid biometric surveillance, people’s moves and actions have been under the constant radar of AI devices, whose presence is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and government-owned.
The technology behind GLXSS ME is not particularly different from that of CCTV cameras, but it is refined: CCTV cannot reach and follow suspects everywhere, the images are blurry, and often by the time the targets are identified they might have already moved out of the field of vision of the camera. But, “By making wearable glasses, with AI on the front end, you get instant and accurate feedback. You can decide right away what the next interaction is going to be.”, Wu Fei, the company’s chief executive, told the WSJ in an interview.
The smart sunglasses embody the intensification of state surveillance powered by the Chinese government in collaboration with facial-recognition companies such as LLVision, and how easily the technology can fall into the wrong hands. Make no mistake here. The increasing ‘safety’ of civilians comes at the very high cost of everyone’s privacy; the harder it is to get away with criminal activity is directly related to the day-to-day surveillance on the ground when it comes to China’s approach.
China’s serious tilt towards using facial recognition technology for security and surveillance purposes comes as no surprise, but this new product certainly adds a darker twist to the state of policing already active in the country. And although China is steps ahead in the AI race compared to Europe or even the U.S., every time a device designed to police citizens gets used by a government, everyone’s privacy rights become more vulnerable. And that is definitely the case with GLXSS ME.