Recent and recurring news report images of masked Hong Kong protestors under further cover of umbrellas, tearing down lampposts bristling with government-equipped surveillance cameras along with Bluetooth sensor connectivity, should serve as a serious harbinger warning to all of us.

Demonstrators prudently fear that those “smart” lampposts are a big part of Beijing’s move to encroach upon Hong Kong’s guarantee of partial autonomy until 2047.

On Aug. 24, some protestors handed out stickers emblazoned with surveillance cameras that said “monitoring is coming.” Others marched with banners predicting that Chinese surveillance tactics used in the restrictive Muslim-majority northwestern region of Xinjiang will be exported to Hong Kong.

According to The Wall Street Journal, by next year there will be 600 million surveillance cameras in China.

That’s roughly one camera for every two citizens.

The cameras feed government databases in real time. With assistance from sophisticated facial recognition software, they are forecast to be able to identify everyone, everywhere within three seconds of anything happening.

Next year, when China’s “social merit” system kicks in, the government will rank citizens according to whatever their bureaucrats regard to be good and bad behavior. Bad behavior can include buying too many video games, having your dog unleashed, putting trash in the wrong bins, hanging out with the “wrong” people, and for sure, criticizing the Communist party or their officials.

Throughout America, the market for electronic surveillance systems, including facial recognition devices, literally exploded a half-century later following September 2001 terror attacks which shook the national psyche. By last year, New York City had ramped up installations to roughly 20,000 officially-run cameras in Manhattan alone.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has installed monitors to scan motorists’ faces at bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to other boroughs.

Chicago meanwhile had installed an estimated 32,000 CCTVs to help combat the inner city murder epidemic.

No federal laws currently exist to limit how artificial intelligence technology in general (nor facial recognition systems specifically) can be used.

A few states and local governments, however, are beginning to address necessary limitations on socially-exploitive applications through their own efforts.

Illinois, for example, has passed a law requiring companies to obtain consent from customers prior to collecting biometric information. A U.S. Senate bill introduced last March would apply the same requirements to prevent companies from sharing such data without customer consent.

Public camera surveillance typically begins with installation of corner intersection traffic monitoring premised upon promoting motorist and pedestrian safety. Following a blistering debate to the contrary, Houston removed all of its red light cameras in 2011.

A Case Western University analysis looked at Texas cities before and after the installation and removal of cameras. The study found that there was a noticeable increase in rear-end crashes related to drivers slamming on their breaks.

Last June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed bi-partisan House Bill 1631 into law which puts the breaks on red light traffic cameras throughout the state. His office released a statement indicating reasons for the legislative measure, “They are expensive, studies indicate that they may increase accidents where deployed, and they pose constitutional issues.”

Critics have noted that rather than improving safety, the primary motive behind city traffic cameras is to pad government agency coffers. State 2010 records show that motorist ticketing revenues attributed to Texas red light cameras had soared by $62 million over the previous year.

It’s not only conservatives who are concerned about oppressive facial recognition aided and abetted government social control consequences. In May, technology mecca San Francisco officially became the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition by the local police department along with other city agencies.

The new ordinance explains, “The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring.”

Oakland and other California cities are considering similar ordinances.

Airports and airlines are using facial recognition at terminals to speed up international flights with faster passenger boarding. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told Fox Business, “The facial recognition genie, so to speak, is just emerging from the bottle. Unless we act, we risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues.”

Hayes then warned, “By that time, these challenges will be much more difficult to bottle back up.”

In my soon-to-be-released book, “The Weaponization of AI and the Internet,” I refer to the big tradeoff between more security and convenience in exchange for precious privacy as a “boiling frog” analogy.

Like that witless critter in a shallow pan of water placed over a flame, we can’t afford to complacently adjust to the gradual temperature change until it’s too late to jump out.

Author

  • CFACT Advisor Larry Bell heads the graduate program in space architecture at the University of Houston. He founded and directs the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture. He is also the author of "Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax."