Tristan GreeneEditor, Neural by TNW
Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him
“The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society.” Amazon engineer Max Eliaser
The greatest threat posed to democracy in any free nation is that of ubiquitous government surveillance. Many countries today are struggling to find the proper balance between useful facial recognition and connected-camera technologies and those that threaten our privacy.
We’re here to make it easy: Public-facing facial recognition or connected home-security camera systems that offer access to law enforcement are dangerous and should be banned outright.
Read: Amazon Engineer: ‘Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back’
We’ll start with Amazon’s Ring devices.
The problem with Ring
Here’s how Amazon convinces millions of people they need to pay $200 for the privilege of letting hackers, Google, Facebook, contractors in other countries, and the US government spy on them. The official Ring website has a page titled “Criminals Caught In The Act.” As advertised, the page displays several examples of their connected-camera doorbell device thwarting criminal endeavors.
What Amazon (the company that paid two billion dollars for Ring) wants you to believe is that you simply install a smart doorbell where your existing doorbell is. This smart doorbell has a camera in it that’s always recording. Amazon takes care of hosting the footage so you don’t have to maintain large amounts of high-definition data.
These devices are positioned as security cameras. The past few years have seen a sharp increase in occurrences of package theft. Ring says its cameras can help law enforcement track down and apprehend these thieves.
Amazon also positions the Ring cameras as a sort of digital Neighborhood Watch. Users are encouraged to download the company’s Neighborhood app and participate in a community forum that’s even open to residents who don’t own a Ring device.
They’re also asked to consent to allowing the police to request footage from their cameras in the event a crime is committed in the neighborhood and said footage could aid police in apprehending the criminal.
If you’re reading this and starting to feel like maybe you and all your neighbors should go out and buy a Ring camera, then Amazon is doing its job perfectly. Unfortunately for anyone considering purchasing a Ring camera, its job is to sell you Ring devices so that it can fulfill the promises its made to police departments across the country.
Here’s some key facts that consumers in the US should know before installing a Ring camera
They’re essentially useless unless you opt-in to having your footage stored centrally. This means your data will live on Amazon’s servers for as long as Amazon chooses to keep it there. It will almost certainly be accessed by at least one stranger. This stranger may not work for Ring, Amazon, or even be in the same country as you.
You cannot stop police from accessing your Ring camera data, even if you opt out. Amazon and Ring do not disclose the full nature of their partnership with police departments and Amazon has no access control over how police use the footage. They’re basically on the honor system.
This means the police are required to police themselves: there are no actual laws or physical security precautions in place to prevent them from misusing their specific access.
Ring cameras have already been hacked several times and the longer they’re out in the wild the more opportunities bad actors will have to find new vulnerabilities. There currently exists no technology by which Amazon can guarantee your camera won’t be hacked.
There are no US laws preventing Amazon from sharing any footage it obtains with anyone else. And it’s important to remember that even if you don’t own a Ring camera, the ones in your neighborhoods are still recording footage of you without your consent.
Ring shares information with third-parties such as Google, Facebook, law enforcement agencies across the US, and contractors in the Ukraine – this isn’t a fear, it’s a fact. That means that right now, if you’ve ever been caught on any Ring camera, footage of you is on an Amazon server and you have no way of controlling who has access to it.
What’s the danger?
Who cares if cops and some random programmer in the Ukraine can see footage of us mowing our lawns and carrying groceries? The argument here usually goes something like this: “Any reasonable person in modern society already knows they’re being filmed all the time. If the police can use Ring footage to catch murderers and child abductors, I’m willing to risk being seen scratching my butt while I pick up my newspaper.”
Related: Read this if you’ve got nothing to hide
Privacy means that if the rules ever change, and someone tries to make your lifestyle illegal, you won’t regret wearing the wrong hat when you went to check the mail, or kissing your spouse goodbye in your driveway in view of a camera the police can access.
It means hackers can’t go from home to home looking for cameras that show a view of your children playing outside in order to find the best abduction angle.
Privacy means police can’t bypass the search warrant process by just looking through all the available Ring camera footage in a given neighborhood for “black suspects” or “tall men” that look suspicious so they can start rounding people up and bringing them in for questioning.
But we have no privacy if our neighbors are using Ring cameras.
And that brings us to facial recognition technology.
The problem with facial recogntion
Amazon says Ring doesn’t currently use facial recognition technology, but reports indicate that it intends to. The company’s already working on a system by which “watch lists” could be generated that use facial recognition to identify people. The idea here is that a known “bad person” could be tagged by users so that if they showed up in a neighborhood again after, for example, stealing packages, police could be alerted or a community alarm could go out.
Once again, this sounds innocuous at first – it’s like having an AI watching out for people we already know are bad. But, Ring isn’t a guard dog there to protect our packages. It’s a surveillance conduit that just happens to have some uses for those hosting it.
The fact is that facial recognition technology is flawed. When a company like Amazon, Palantir, or Clearview AI claims their algorithms are accurate they’re being misleading. Law enforcement can’t use facial recognition software at the recommended settings (the ones the companies developing these systems base their accuracy claims on) because they don’t work. In order to deploy facial recognition technology, law enforcement agencies set the threshold for accuracy low enough to simply work as a dragnet.
Read: Chicago police: Facial recognition adds “jet fuel” for criminal investigations
These systems aren’t designed to identify criminals in real-time, they’re designed to build up a surveillance library that can be pored over at a later time. That’s the very definition of a surveillance state.
The second amendment can’t protect us from Ring and facial recognition
Imagine if every firearm in the US could be weaponized against its owners and their neighbors by the US government. Instead of protecting ourselves from tyranny, we’d be enabling it. Now imagine giving the government the ability to type a name into a database and figure out which civilian-owned gun was closest to any given person in real-time: that’s what giving them facial recognition is like. We install these systems and let cops access them because we think we’re protecting our families, in reality we’re ensuring that our right to form a militia and bear arms is meaningless.
In 2020, it’s easily arguable that our right to privacy in the US is more important to our freedom than those granted under the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
Yet police throughout the US continue to adopt faulty facial recognition technology simply because it leads to arrests. So do permanent military checkpoints, stop and frisk, racial profiling, and ordered state religion, and none of those are compatible with a free society either.
The bottom line is that these technologies are dangerous to democracy. Donald Trump’s administration, state and local law enforcement agencies, and companies such as Amazon are only able to get away with implementing them now because there’s nobody around to stop them.
Simply put: the companies profiting off these technologies aren’t going to protect us from the government. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Libertarian, or none of the above. Because the only people in our democracy who truly have nothing to hide are those who’ll trust the US government implicitly no matter who wins the next election.
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