If you have ever felt the sensation that your social media channels are slyly eavesdropping on your personal conversations only to spit majorly personalised ad content on your feed, then this new project sponsored by Mozilla and co-created by artists Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne is just what the doctor ordered. For the techno-paranoid walking amongst us, The New Organs is a quirky platform where you, and others like you, can relieve this long built up suspicion. Breathe, what a relief. Upon entering the website users are greeted with a comforting question, “Does the Internet know more about you than you think it should?” If the answer is yes, simply scroll down and tick the relevant statements from a list that includes examples such as “I see ads for things I dream about” and “Ads know things about me that I haven’t told anyone.”
The thing is, while the two artists have reportedly received more than 700 submissions of uncanny fables of ad targeting for which very few of us have a plausible explanation, it would be outright illegal for companies to do so. Back in 2016 when everyone was convinced their phones were being ‘hacked’, Facebook denied the theories in a public statement, assuring the world that “This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.” Two years and one Cambridge Analytica Senate Testimony later, it has been concluded that no, our social media platforms do not listen to our conversations as beyond legality, this type of targeting would require the storage of vast amounts of data and the assistance of highly specialised machine learning to pick up targetable sentences such as “I want pizza”.
But maybe that breath of relief was preempted, because the real explanation for why so many of us feel as though we are being stalked by our beloved social media platforms is much, much more worrying and relates back to the honesty of the statement Facebook released in defence. Indeed no speakers are being accessed as the ads that are shown to you are an amalgamation of your likes, dislikes; your Google maps whereabouts, where you eat, where you shop (information that is passed to social media through banks and other services we use), and lastly and perhaps most importantly—exactly the same extent of information gathered on your friends. All of this data is clumped together and used to make profiles about users that are sometimes banal: online shopper, vegetarian, lives within five miles of a Tesco or Poundland. And sometimes slightly more invasive, such as: recently broken up, separated from family and suffers from a certain medical condition.
Within this breadth of information about you and everyone around you, ads can take on an uncanny zeitgeist twist and begin to seem as though they are reading your thoughts, infiltrating your dreams and eavesdropping on your pillow talk insights. Because as much as our psyche urges our mind to believe we are uniquely individualistic, what our consumer selves desire has been largely influenced by what our surrounding desires; what is trending, the conversations we have and in turn the dreams we dream. Just a few months ago Amelia Tait conducted a thorough conversational experiment for the New Statesman to test the tapped microphone theory—and concluded that no, social media is not listening to our conversations. But, as rightly said, rather than worrying that our privacy is outright breached, we should “worry about the multitude of smaller privacy invading scandals that have allowed Facebook to get so much information on you.”
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.