My Precious

 In our society, it’s easy to keep a close eye on the movements, actions, and intentions of individuals.

Three factors are major contributors to this: electronic means of payment, cellphones, and social media. The tool of choice for analysis is Artificial Intelligence (AI), and taken together, data from the three musketeers of individual espionage correspond to what is currently called Big Data—millions to billions of individual items, growing constantly.

You can develop the argument along the lines of who, what, where, when, how, and why—out of the six, why seems to be the hardest word.

As an example, if a group of four people is selected on the basis of nationality or race, any transactions that occur online, or on the high street, can be traced without difficulty. Even if you only have access to metadata, such as which store (e- or otherwise) was used, when the event occurred, and how much was spent, there are many useful things that can be gleaned about our gang of four.

  • Patterns: who goes to the same place daily, is there a particular time, does it occur on weekends, how much is spent? Based on the type of establishment, can AI interpret the data to make an educated guess about what people are doing? Eating, dancing, dating, planning home improvements, getting a massage, traveling? No brainer…
  • Trends: is an activity becoming more or less frequent, has the expenditure changed, is it for different things or more of the same? Is there a medical component? Does a restaurant check for one become a check for two? Does that occur doing the week but not at weekends, in which case perhaps a tryst is in the making? Do we now have purchases from a jewellery store?

This is just by looking at purchasing history based on a credit card, a cellphone payment system, or any other transactional mechanism. We now know roughly where the subjects live, what they have for breakfast, whether they drink alcohol, what their income level is, and whether they know each other.

When you add cellphone data to the mix, this becomes a far richer ecosystem: now you know exactly where those folks are, where they live—possibly not their registered address—and how long and when they sleep. More importantly, who they associate (and sleep) with, and you can then start to map a society.

The cherry on the cake is social media—as a societal phenomenon, it absolutely fascinates me, particularly when group activities are involved. It’s hard to think of any human experience that has been so widely accepted so fast.

From the very early days of Usenet, developed in 1979 by two graduate students at Duke, to Instagram and TikTok, online social interaction is a winner. Facebook, also created by students, started in 2004. Twitter, 2006. WhatsApp, 2009. Instagram, 2010. Two things catapulted all of these into the hearts of ordinary people: the internet of things, or IoT, and multimedia, i.e. sound, images, and video.

From that moment on, when it comes to Big Brother watching you, it was Christmas come early.

In the European Union, where concerns about immigration and terrorism make tracking very appealing, a whole lot of research money has gone into AI systems that address such questions—the Horizon 2020 framework program, which funded EU research over the past seven years, manages these funds.

As an example, five million euros funded the Real-time Early Detection (RED) alert project, which used “natural language processing (NLP), semantic media analysis (SMA), social network analysis (SNA), Complex Event Processing (CEP) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies” to monitor terrorist groups.

The iBorderCtrl partnership received 4.5 million to develop lie detector technology based on facial features.

Overall, 1.7 billion euros of public funds were channeled by Horizon 2020 into this research area—in total, the EU has spent 2.7 billion since 2007, and some of the biggest players in security are heavily involved, including BAE (UK), Siemens (Germany), Thales (France), and Leonardo (Italy).

Selfies and GPS track your location, courtesy of BMB (Big Medical Brother).

COVID has added some extra spice to the mix. The new EU research framework, called Horizon Europe, puts 1.3 billion € into security research. In addition, a further 8 billion goes into military technologies billed as ‘dual-use’. As an example, Poland released an app earlier this year that requires you to take selfies while in quarantine, and then uses GPS and facial recognition to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be—if you don’t get in touch, the cops will.

This kind of app has obvious uses in other surveillance areas, including house arrest and tracking of immigrants. The main concern about tools like this is the intrusive nature of the approach—in a totalitarian state, the potential for violation of civil liberties is obvious, but even in an open democratic society it’s still there, just less evident.

Apps that analyze you remotely, for instance at an airport security station, are ethically questionable—you have no idea you’re being vetted. iBorderCtrl, for instance, whose website iborderctrl.eu has been hidden and now bounces to the European Commission’s CORDIS platform, is billed as follows:

travellers will use an online application to upload pictures of their passport, visa and proof of funds, then use a webcam to answer questions from a computer-animated border guard, personalised to the traveller’s gender, ethnicity and language. The unique approach to ‘deception detection’ analyses the micro-gestures of travellers to figure out if the interviewee is lying...

After the traveller’s documents have been reassessed, and fingerprinting, palm vein scanning and face matching have been carried out, the potential risk posed by the traveller will be recalculated. Only then does a border guard take over from the automated system.

Palm vein scanning was a new one on me—apparently it’s a highly accurate biometric identification—I suppose palmistry had it all figured out centuries ago.

Concerns about public spending on opaque, ethically questionable research areas that will be used to protect the average citizen, but can be easily misused, have led to a blitz of requests for information. In large part, these are not met, alleging confidentiality and protection of intellectual property—recently, a German MEP from the Pirate party sued the EC to release information on iBorderCtrl—the case is now in the European Court of Justice.

Of course, all these things battle against human ingenuity—sooner or later, some of this sophisticated toolset ends up as castles made of sand.

In Mozambique, and I suspect many other countries, it is currently possible to pay labs for a positive or negative COVID test, complete with signature and stamp—you pay, they oblige. If you want to travel, get a negative one, if you want time off work or don’t feel like getting on a plane, go for positive.

And it’s not just Africa—I found this guy’s story particularly bizarre, and since he was wearing a burqa, I guess they grabbed him by the palm veins.

Hustlers are quick to get on the bandwagon. Some enterprising folks registered the fakecovidtest.com site, which allows you to get yourself a fake test certificate. The site makes sure you click on a couple of disclaimers, including one where you categorically state that you will not use the test for any wicked purpose.

Again, I agree to not use this website, any information contained within this website, or any fake test generated by this website, to knowingly lie to another person about COVID-19 status, trick employers/law enforcement, or ANY OTHER malicious intent.

The site emphasizes that its purpose is for you to obtain a certificate as a joke. I love jokes, particularly tasteful ones like this, so I ran through the form.

The best jokes in the world are the ones where you die laughing.

When I clicked next, I too (even though I am a duck) could choose positive, negative, or inconclusive. The bottom line was pretty conclusive: twenty-five bucks to get my certificate—now that’s what I call a fucking joke.

If your finely honed sense of humor stretches to two and a half sawbucks, then this is the 2020 joke for you. And if you’re a US citizen, what could be more amusing that three hundred thousand deaths? Just think, if you faked a negative test, you might even die laughing.

But AI and facial recognition extends to many other noble purposes—in China, the world’s largest pork producer, pig snouts, ears, and eyes are scanned by sensors. Fitbits track pulse and sweat. A hungry or sick pig can be flagged due to the distress on their faces.

I’m sure it’s all part of a brave new world, but I can’t help feeling sorry for those poor pigs as I wrap up this text. Our cruelty to animals is unspeakable.

You can’t carry the world on your shoulders, but I’d rather eat a bit of fish.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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