privacy and freedom of expression in AI

Privacy and freedom of expression in the age of Artificial Intelligence

George Orwell in his novel 1984 described a surveillance society where citizens could not escape the all-seeing eye of big brother. Telescreens spied upon citizens whether at work or play. Citizens were tracked by the state, and disciplined if they did not act in a manner beholden to The Party. With the exception of the odd rogue state Orwell’s dystopia has not come true, but the lack of privacy and constant surveillance is now a fact of day-to-day life. As Gabriel  Márquez claimed that we all have three lives, the question is how will it be possible to keep our private, and secret lives out of public view and judgement.

The All-Seeing Eye

All of us have a mask which we show to the world at large which can often hide a murky, and dark side which we may want to keep hidden. The invasiveness of relatively simple machine learning techniques has been recently demonstrated where adult actors were outed from anonymous films on major adult sites by linking individual images stripped from movies to social media accounts. The untold social embarrassment is incalculable. And more importantly, none of these subjects consented in any shape or form for their mask of anonymity to be ripped from their faces. As demonstrated by this example the agents of constant surveillance are not always state actors. State actors have not, however, been crowded out of the surveillance game. Facial recognition is now used for mass-screening people to pluck the criminal needle from the law-abiding haystack  with the “state of the art success rate” of ten percent.   

The nothing to hide nothing to fear apologists will no doubt order Netizens to keep their images off the Internet. But even that is not enough because researchers have found a way of recreating faces from voices and linking written texts to individuals. There are even techniques that can estimate your nationality based upon mistakes that you make in your written English. Not only can individual techniques be used to identify individuals and their secrets, techniques can be linked together to form a more detailed image of the individual. In China, for example, it is possible to pay with your face for food. It is, therefore, possible to estimate the healthiness of an individual’s diet. And there is the infamous example of Target knowing  that a customer was pregnant before her family did.

Fight Back?

There has been some push-back against the all-seeing eye of artificial intelligent powered constant surveillance. The Brave Browser , and the baked-in VPNs in the Opera Browser  are noble attempts to frustrate the advertising networks as well as the social media giants from identifying your  browsing habits, and inferring your darkest secrets.  More savvy users have been using Tor to confound the trackers for a significant period of time. 
Outside the wild-west of the Internet, the push-back against surveillance technical solutions have begun to appear to enforce an individual’s desire to be lost in a crowd of humanity. T-shirts and sunglasses have been developed that can distract facial recognition cameras. This is a but a finger in the dyke which will be washed away by a tsunami of invasive AI  powered tech.

T-Shirt Pattern that Distracts Facial Recognition Cameras. Source

The Inevitable Loss Of Privacy?

Are we on an irreversible path where all privacy is lost and citizens are simply actors in the  largest reality show ever seen? The answer does not necessarily have to be yes. The enforcement of individual privacy must not rely upon technical tricks which will be circumvented, it must be seen as a fundamental human right that has to be enshrined into the legal system. The desire for privacy is demonstrated by right to be forgotten which is in force in the EU and Argentina and is formalised in the UK in the GDPR. This right imposes an obligation on data providers to delete information about an individual. This could shield people who have grown up with social media from their youthful dalliances. There are also individual cities under pressure from their citizens who have banned facial recognition technology . Presidential candidates are promising to break up technological behemoths which may limit tech’s ability to abuse an individual’s privacy.

Legal rights and the establishment of new rights is only possible if the electorate demands it. The ultimate weapon in the fight for privacy are not technical solutions, but public outrage which forces lawmakers to legislate abusive private sector actors out of business.

Brett Drury is Senior Data Scientist located in Skim`s Porto office. He has a PhD from the University of Porto. He can be contacted at

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