By Siddharth Pai
On September 10, 2021, I found the same place where I was on September 10, 2001, landing at La Guardia Airport in New York City. I spent the next day remembering and reliving the events of 20 years ago, and how they changed me.
New York was at its peak in 2001, having been cleansed by the iron fist of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. It was safe, even at night. The homeless were nowhere in sight. Despite the September 11 attacks, the city continued to be a magnet for financial services, advertising and the media. It is also a small rival of California with its “Silicon Alley” start-ups. But the Covid-19 pandemic has marked the city. Homelessness is once again apparent, and many other aspects of life in this teeming city have changed as well.
One of these changes has nothing to do with Covid-19. It was the relentless online surveillance that began in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. In the two decades since the towers fell, a battery of electronic eyes has developed – a steel light fixture mounted above a store door, the glass orb hidden on streetlights – all hidden cameras that escape people’s attention, but can still see them.
Amnesty International recently carried out a voluntary count of the number of cameras used by the New York Police Department (NYPD) for surveillance. Volunteers counted and tagged 15,280 cameras in just three of the city’s five boroughs. Their output is used for facial recognition software. “This vast array of cameras can be used by police for invasive facial recognition and risk, turning New York City into an Orwellian surveillance city,” says Matt Mahmoudi, researcher at Amnesty International. “You are never anonymous. Whether you are attending a protest, walking through a particular neighborhood, or even just shopping, your face can be tracked by facial recognition technology using images from thousands of camera points across. New York. These police cameras are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to its departmental cameras, the NYPD has access to more than 20,000 cameras installed privately, in company offices and other private establishments. Before September 11, the New York Civil Liberties Union had fewer than 2,400 cameras in Manhattan.
Interestingly, after a tortured self-examination, three major US tech companies announced last year that they would be withdrawing their facial recognition programs. Amazon, IBM and Microsoft have all said they are canceling their programs or suspending police services using their facial recognition algorithms.
According to a letter to U.S. lawmakers from IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, the company is on the verge of ditching general-purpose scanning and facial recognition software. His letter said his company “does not tolerate the use of any technology … for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms …”. Amazon has banned law enforcement agencies for one year from using Rekognition, its facial search technology. And Microsoft is waiting for new legislation to pass before selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement.
Some self-righteous observers say this is a good thing. The author of an article in Forbes says, “I don’t think we can overstate the importance of IBM, Microsoft and Amazon and their roles in influencing other tech companies to take a stronger stance on human rights. man and the fight against discrimination… Let’s hope that other tech companies start to filter their technology through similar glasses for human rights and the fight against discrimination and follow their example. “
Recent advances in facial recognition are indeed an about-face for some big tech companies. In mid-2018, Rekognition, Amazon’s open application programming interface for facial recognition, made headlines for showing surprising results in a test by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU ). This organization scanned the faces of 535 members of the US Congress against 25,000 public photos of arrested people and / or criminals. No member of Congress was in these images, but Amazon’s system generated 28 fake matches, with obvious implications.
At the time, Amazon responded that the ACLU’s tests were run at its default 80% confidence level, not the 95% the company recommends for law enforcement applications where a false ID. can have serious consequences. It seems that such nuanced arguments are now irrelevant. Rekognition and his two brothers were intentionally arrested for some time.
Other tech companies that regularly use facial recognition technology are still conspicuously absent from the conversation. The same goes for well-funded start-ups like Clearview AI, whose technology is used by more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies and companies around the world. Clearview claims to have recovered over 3 billion photos from the internet, including popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. It keeps these photos in its database even after users delete them from the respective platforms or make their accounts private.
Meanwhile, China’s oversight of its own citizens is well known. He also threw his facial recognition net further. Chinese “aid” money distributed to some countries in Latin America and Africa is used to buy surveillance cameras and facial recognition technologies from Chinese giants such as Hikvision and Zhejiang Dahua.
Despite the fine intentions of Amazon, IBM and Microsoft (and the tacit admission of the limits of their own facial recognition technology), the rest of the world is no exception. Even America’s most prominent critic, China, has assiduously attacked the technology. Cyclops cameras and intrusive software are here to stay.
The author is a technology consultant and venture capitalist
By invitation from New York