Brave new world of government ‘digital surveillance’ programs

Why do so many politicians and bureaucrats love the new ‘big brother’ push for new technologies such as cameras on every street corner, facial recognition (as well as) software , and digital surveillance uses and abuses of ‘the internet of things’? In other words, what is the sinister agenda of the ‘artificial intelligence’ takeover of society? Why is this so typified by the China digital surveillance ‘on every street corner’ program linked to its related ‘social credit’ scorecard for every citizen?

So Gold Coast mayor Tom Tate gets back from a trip to Taiwan last week and now says he wants to make the Gold Coast ‘the safest city in Australia’ through a ‘massive CCTV network’ implementation with related surveillance technologies? (1) No doubt that security cameras in certain dodgy (especially ‘night clubs and bars’ areas) of the city would lessen crime and promote some safety. However, few people seem to be aware of also the dangers of a possible widespread misuse of integrated surveillance technologies such as facial recognition, body and scanning and geo-tracking (2). Yet in the name of strengthening police and also counter-terrorism the Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton earlier this year brought in legislation to set up a biometric data central hub which would allow ‘government’ to keep tabs on all citizens through the related proposal of a ‘national facial recognition scheme’– even its use in the streets to potentially fine jaywalkers just the tip of the iceberg of applications (3).

This would all be bad enough even if we could really trust our politicians and bureaucrats – but as Aussie Watchdogs has been chronicling for several years now, this would be a dangerous illusion. And, as we discuss also below, such a future is already being demonstrated in how the trials of the Chinese authorities to use related digital technologies to keep its citizens is clearly being open to be abused (with many accounts already coming in). (4) And people like Dutton (from both main political parties) seem to only focus on the capacity to control people and ignore all the actual and potential abuses that are either already happening or they are being warned about. It’s ironic then to encourage blind agreement with their plans the one abuse they tend to focus on is the growing potential for cyber attacks or ‘ cyber-terrorism’ (e.g. disruptions of critical national infrastructure like power grids) (5)

A few eyebrows were raised a couple of years ago when innovative entrepreneur Elon Musk warned that ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) now represents the greatest threat to the human race and to life on earth (6). At base the term has been abused to suggest that machines are becoming more intelligent than humans and can take over work as well as most other human functions (and, some suggest, perhaps replace humans altogether). Part of this dystopian vision thus includes a related notion that humans can also become just another ‘object’ controlled both physically and virtually by digital networking technologies and related algorithms (i.e. ‘the internet of things’ … which most typically think of in terms of the ‘smart house’ appliances such as air con that you can now control through apps on your smart phone) (7). [Unlike all natural systems in the material, biological, animal and human domains of life, AI systems do not have what is referred to in systems theory as independent ‘self-organisation’ ( we prefer to use the notion of the ‘inner axis’ of any system and its related functions of structure, growth, emergence, and – especially in relation to humans – accountability or reflective intentionality)]

If you want to see one vision of the future now which exemplifies the easy potential of politicians and bureaucrats as well as forces of corruption (not to mention, organised crime, etc) then you should go to certain parts of China – or watch ABC Foreign Correspondent’s illuminating recent report ‘leave no dark corner’ (8). This program looks at China’s strategy to control people by using digital surveillance (and related network) technologies (e.g. 200 million digital cameras are already deployed in the streets and buildings of big cities, and will quickly be trebled in the next couple of years only) linked to a dystopian personal scorecard for every individual citizen to control them through punishments – with passive compliant ‘model citizens’ rewarded. This is advanced version of how the Australian government is presently adopting some similar methods that can and will be further accelerated as well as extended to other areas like ‘outstanding student loans’ – for instance, the recent report that anyone with ‘child support debts’ (as well as bankrupts, registered sex offenders, terrorist suspects, etc) is from now on simply stopped from travelling overseas when they get to the airport and try to go through customs and immigration (9).

Two of the program’s examples illustrate the potential for abuse, and the reasons why any policy implementation of such technologies to enhance security must have also both informed discussion about this and some related checks and balances to try and ensure little or no abuses. One key example involved a social media investigator who had exposed official corruption and themselves were then arrested, jailed and fined on trumped up charges (assumedly by the same corrupt forces deviously manipulating the system). But even worse than this is that they have now anonymously been given a ‘rating’ on ubiquitous databases (also monitored online technologies and by surveillance cameras) which means their life is effectively ruined or at least negatively controlled without real opportunity to challenge false information or crooked sabotage (e.g. they cannot work or travel freely – and others are now scared to associated with them). The other example is from Xinjiang in China where the Uighers are automatically unable to get a ‘high rating’ and most at risk of a low ‘social credit’ rating which not only controls their work, travel and general movements and communications – but is directly linked to how, as the UN has estimated about a million Uighers are being held in Chinese ‘re-education camps’ (which apparently often involve physical as well as psychological torture and possibly worse) (10).

But the most illuminating part of this program is its visual representation of how the very facial recognition scheme proposed here in Australia just a few months ago is already being implemented in China generally as well as starting to be used at airports and important functions in Australia and elsewhere. In other words, it’s a must-see for anyone (like Tom Tate) who is thinking of uncritically recommending digital surveillance technologies their building, their city or their country Or is just interested in contemplating or discussing the future directions of the world over a cup of cappuccino, etc. As a bonus, its an exemplary instance of the potential links between as well as overall abuses of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and ‘surveillance’ as a back-side covering solution for all the ills of the world.



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