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Why are we playing games with our privacy?

Credit: Getty

October 16, 2018   3 mins

Video surveillance is a topic I’ve returned to several times – not just because of what the technology can already do, but also because of what it will be able to do in the not-so-distant future. As the hardware goes digital, tiny and cheap, and the software becomes super smart, the era of public anonymity is drawing to a close.

But at least we have our homes – private spaces which we can shield from prying eyes (including those of the electronic kind). Of course, if you want to take endless selfies with your smartphone or set up your own security camera you can – but it’s under your control.

Or is it? Last week, Facebook launched a new gadget, which caused some consternation on that front. Mike Isaac and Brian X Chen reported on the launch for the New York Times:

“On Monday, Facebook introduced a pair of video-calling devices — Portal and Portal Plus — to help expand its reach into people’s living rooms.

“Portal and Portal Plus, which have a 12-megapixel camera with high-definition video and artificial intelligence software, can be used to do video chats. The A.I.-powered camera follows users as they move, letting them converse without sitting stiffly. The devices also include Amazon’s Alexa, which people can command to play music or check the weather.”

I suppose it’s reassuring that the company isn’t insensible to the obvious worries over privacy and hacking:

“To address privacy concerns with Portal and Portal Plus, Facebook said the products include an electronic kill switch for the front-facing camera, as well as a cover for the lens. In addition, video calls are encrypted, and the camera’s A.I. technology runs on the device itself, not on Facebook’s servers, the company said.”

And yet one has to ask whether such products – “digital assistants” that watch and/or listen to their owners – are habituating us to a culture of surveillance in our own homes.

Yes, it’s all about improving the user experience – our gadgets attending more closely to our needs and minimising the effort required to instruct them. However, there is a progression to these things: novelty becomes convenience, which becomes indispensability, and that, in turn, provides the provider with a means of control.

Not that long ago, an internet connection was a convenience. For the first time one could download software content directly, instead of laboriously loading it up from a physical storage medium (‘insert floppy disk 6 of 10’). But what started off as an option quickly became essential to using a computer. Unless one wishes to live a highly restricted digital life, one now has no option but to be online. This has given the tech companies a great deal of power over how we use their products – and over the data we generate in the process.

How long, I wonder, before we have to choose between digital isolation and granting the tech lords to the right to watch and to listen to what goes on at home?

To understand where this might be going next, keep an eye on China. Here’s a fascinating report from Zheping Huang of the South China Morning Post:

“Tencent Holdings, the world’s top-grossing games publisher, will use facial recognition technology to detect minors amid tighter scrutiny by the Chinese government over concerns excessive video gaming is hurting public health.

“Tencent’s blockbuster mobile title, Honour of Kings, will be the first to test the technology, with some 1,000 new users in Beijing and Shenzhen selected to verify their identities through camera checks…”

The company even has a video app that will blur the screen if the viewer gets too close to it.

My guess is that many parents, whether China or the West, would welcome these protections. It certainly takes the effort out of monitoring what their children are doing online. In theory, video confirmation of identity would also stop internet paedophiles from posing as children – another parental worry.

But think what else this technology could be used for. Paywalled content providers could use it to stop people from sharing log-ins. People who violate the rules on social media sites could be prevented from switching to another account. Marketing experts could analyse facial expressions to find out how viewers react to advertisements. Legitimate applications, one could argue – but a further extension of big tech into private life.

And then, of course, there’s what oppressive regimes would do once they have eyes and ears in every home. People won’t just have to be careful about what they say in private, but also what is unsaid: the fleeting scowl crossing a face when the great leader appears on TV.

It’ll all be more benign in the West; but someone, somewhere will still be watching.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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