Since its inception the automobile has always been a romantic figure in American popular culture and emblematic of the American way of life. In short, the automobile has been freedom incarnate. On our sixteenth birthdays, we Americans take the day off and go straight to the DMV to take our driver’s exam. With our newly minted license, we are set free from the bounds of our parents and their ever-watching eye. It is our first right of passage.
As explained in an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, car companies can now store and mine lots of information about car owners, from how fast you are driving to where and when you are traveling. That means it becomes much harder for you to use your wheels to be free. Your spouse or your parents may not know where you are going or where you have been, but your car company does. If you’re cheating, you better hope your spouse doesn’t have a friend at your car company. And what if the police get a warrant to search your car company’s data on your vehicle’s performance? Forget contesting that speeding ticket in court. Who needs the Fifth Amendment when your car can incriminate against you instead?
Am I overreacting? Maybe, but the U.S. Senate did just approve with support from Democrats the extension and expansion of Donald Trump’s ability to spy on U.S. citizens and that includes reading your emails without a warrant. In fact, there were Democrats who said the matter didn’t even deserve to be debated. I would imagine that means mining data from our car companies as well.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post also reported on China’s intention to use facial recognition technology to keep a watchful eye on all citizens to help predict and combat crime. We should all be concerned about the government and private companies as Big Brother, but with facial recognition there is also the issue of accuracy.
False positives can mean that certain people are regularly stopped and potentially harassed by the police. Now imagine that the biometric engineers who set the algorithms are all from the same racial and ethnic groups, whether on purpose or not, their biases will be factored into the accuracy of the results. This will likely translate into minority groups taking the brunt of the false positives. For artificial intelligence and machine learning to be effective, it needs to be accurate at least 80% of the time. When that happens it will always be better than humans. But still, if we move to a system of Big Brother with ubiquitous cameras capturing our facial images 24/7 and the system is only 80% accurate, that leads to arguably an unbearably high threshold for potential abuse. Democracies are supposed to accept some criminals getting away with crime in exchange for the innocent not being locked up. It’s the authoritarian regimes who place law and order above the protection of the innocent.
Between companies, governments and new technologies, the potential for opportunities, efficiencies and abuse are endless. It is a Brave New World.