“You are being watched… The government has a secret system, which spies on you every hour of every day.”
-Opening credits, Person Of Interest
Yesterday marked the end of the first year of the Edward Snowden revelations about the horrifying, beyond-the-ravings-of-the-worst-tin-hat-wearing-paranoid extent of American high-tech surveillance, particularly by the National Security Agency. The latest release tells of the extent to which the NSA is researching facial recognition – specifically, the Identity Intelligence project, which harvests millions of pictures of faces online in order to provide data to train their facial recognition algorithms.
In one of the more striking cases of fact and fiction intertwining, this scenario could have been taken wholesale from the CBS TV show, Person Of Interest. Created by Jonathan Nolan a couple of years before the Snowden revelations, the show initially tells of the efforts of the reclusive designer of The Machine (an artificial intelligence computer bought by the government for post-9/11 surveillance, deliberately restricted by its creator to only provide the social security numbers of those about to be involved in violent crime) to aid those who are deemed by The Machine ‘irrelevant’ to national security but still endangered.
Effectively splitting the concept of Batman between two people (the Inventor/Billionaire, portrayed by Lost’s Michael Emerson and The Warrior, in this case an ex-CIA wetworks specialist needing a new, less bloody purpose, played by Jim Caviezel), it brought a clever very-near-future science fictional edge to the idea of the vigilante hero. The show rapidly evolved – not unlike The Machine itself – from an entertaining weekly action/procedural show to one of the best examinations of the effect AI may have on humanity ever shown and a sly commentary on the modern surveillance state.
Nolan and fellow showrunner Greg Plageman have often spoken in interviews about how little fiction their technology actually has – Nolan in particular has often talked about how Google and other firms have spent billions on researching Artificial General Intelligence, whose algorithms can be put to many uses, both fair and foul. (One such interview is here – NB some spoilers for the series.)
Season 3 ended last month with a deepening of the government’s use of AI to detect possible terrorists, plunging headlong into a dystopian world where police and the military locate, detain and even kill those whose metadata is deemed Relevant by an unseen computer algorithm. And frankly, the show looks less and less like science fiction as it goes on.
In commemoration of the Snowden anniversary, a world-wide group of activists established the Reset The Net initiative, offering people free and open-source tools to better protect their identity. I use these tools – so should you.
And, as for facial recognition? Here the options are more limited – especially in the wake of anti-mask legislation which has appeared in several countries (restricting the rights of everyone from devout Muslim women to V-For-Vendetta-mask wearing Anonymous protesters). Possibilities include the CV Dazzle technique of using a combination of asymmetrical make-up and hairstyles to confuse the algorithms that detect faces, and these nifty Infrared LED caps which blind CCTV cameras. And, of course, the awareness that we are watched… the modern pantechnicon surrounds us, and it matters that we remember to look back. Though always, to remember the risks.
Person of Interest returns to TV in September. I cannot recommend it highly enough.