Privacy: What is it and why should it be protected?

Chapter 11 Case Study: Does AI Signal the End of Privacy? The Surveillance State in China

China is increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition for everything from catching petty criminals to enforcing social norms and even checking in on students and teachers in classroom. CNN reports that over a short period of time, police in different cities nabbed suspects attending the concerts of Jacky Cheung using facial recognition technology at security checkpoints at the event. People in China are increasingly forced to submit to such AI facial scanning to perform everyday activities. This not only allows China to make it more difficult for nonconformists and criminals to avoid the state’s authorities, it also intrudes into some of the most private moments of citizens lives.

For example, traditionally Chinese have brought their own toilet paper to public restrooms, but as more foreigners visit the country for business and vacation, China has updated the bathrooms with toilet paper consistent with expectations of the tourists. This has turned out to be an inviting target for poor people who will steal toilet paper and take it home. The solution? The occupant of the stall must now look into a facial recognition device for a machine to dispense a few squares of toilet paper. However much the machine dispenses, the honest occupant had better make it work—the machine will not dispense more toilet paper to the same face again for more than nine minutes. While this may indeed make thieving toilet paper inefficient, it means that there is almost nothing that the government cannot know about its people and almost no aspect of life that AI cannot be used to regulate and control.

Social interactions of various sorts are not exempt either. Some schools have implemented systems that constantly monitor the faces of students and alert the teacher if any facial expression are deemed by the AI to be “inattentive.” This places incredible constraints on both student behavior and the teacher. Students must constantly perform for the AI so as not to attractive negative attention—attention that could be recorded and stored, forming part of a permanent record in a massive personal database another AI could scan in the future. Similarly, the teacher’s methods and style now come under greater scrutiny as teachers with a higher than normal number of inattentive alerts might be subject to disincentives or firing in the future.

How might Chinese authorities justify these intrusions of privacy? Are the benefits worth the sacrifices of privacy and autonomy that people must make to conform? Is it socially beneficial for government to have this degree of knowledge of its people’s activities and ability to restrict and control them?

Case study by Robert Reed

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