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Techno-Autocrats Already Control 1/3 of Globe… and US is Ripe for Picking

March 20, 2019

Axios writer Steve LeVine’s recent article, “A Paradise of the Age of Techno-Autocrats”, offers a chilling account of how China is using a combination of omnipresent surveillance cameras and AI to monitor citizens they deem to be “deviant” from the norm. But, as his article notes, this combination of AI and surveillance data is not limited to China: it is spreading to other authoritarian regimes across the globe… and to the United States.

So far, the use of this technology in the United States is dispersed… but it is trending in the wrong direction. LeVine’s overview describes how “benevolent” uses of facial recognition technology can quickly be translated into malevolent ends, as has occurred in China:

The big picture: Lisa-Marie Neudert, a researcher with Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project, said researchers are working on powerful AI technologies with enormous potential “for good.” But they also can have malicious uses — facial recognition employed for police purposes at a football stadium can also be used to repress the Uighur people of western China.

“When these technologies become weaponized, they can be used for surveillance, manipulation and self-generating propaganda,” Neudert tells Axios.

  • Critics say that facial recognition systems deployed by China and passed on by Beijing to other autocratic states increasingly resemble Orwellian tactics.

  • But “persuasion architectures via surveillance-based micro-targeting are already deployed in the United States,” Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Axios.

  • Mostly that has been for use in advertising, such as at Facebook. “But we’ve already seen it used for politics and more,” Tufekci said.

As noted often in this blog, the hardening of schools is raising a generation of children who are increasingly comfortable with surveillance technology and data collection. District Administration, a journal for school administrators, reported that “according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 80 percent of public schools—and more than 94 percent of high schools—in the U.S. used security cameras to monitor students during the 2015-2016 school year, nearly doubling the number of schools using cameras a decade earlier.” And surveillance cameras are not the only way authoritarian monitoring is being witnessed by students. According to data from a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, armed officers were present at least once a week in 43 percent of all public schools during the 2015-16 school year, compared with 31 percent of schools a decade before.

The trend over the past several decades toward “data-driven decision making” is based on the premise that teachers can target academic deficiencies of students by examining data generated by standardized tests– not only the annual summative tests administered by the States to determine “school success” but also periodic on-line formative tests used to determine if a child is making progress. This “benevolent” use of instructional databases to help teachers make decisions regarding an individual students academic progress is relatively innocuous in terms of its potential misuse outside of schools. But the newer forms of data collection, touted as a means of addressing the unique needs of students who have “behavioral challenges”, could have some chilling effects. Saint John’s University, for example, touts 7 apps that can be used to catalog and collect data on student misconduct as part of its Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy. The goal of ABA therapy, “to collect objective data based on responses made by the child and analyze the data to determine if behavioral improvements are being made” is high-minded. But what assurance is there that data collected on a student’s behavior will not be used to perpetually pigeonhole a child as a “problem” in the future.

When this acceptance of monitoring and data mining is combined with a sense that technology offers a cheap solution to the complicated problems that face us as human beings we are setting ourselves up for a world where a centralized team of “techno-autocrats” can assume a dominant role. The access to the data collection currently occurring in schools is currently limited to school personnel. But it’s systematic collection makes it plausible that it could someday be used for repressive purposes… as could the data being collected on surveillance cameras, smart phones, and internet searches.

As one who read George Orwell’s writings, I find the trend of widespread data collection, the expansion of video surveillance, and use of facial recognition software unsettling. As Richard Kagan noted in the Axios article, our current trends in the use of technology indicate that “We may find ourselves back where we were circa 1914, when the only free, democratic space was in what Walter Lippmann called the ‘Atlantic Community’ — comprising the U.S. and Western Europe.”

I hope that as we contemplate “hardening” our schools even more that we will do everything possible to ensure that our students are not being raised in a democratic space.

 

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