Posts Tagged ‘Surveillance Software’

Private Eye on ‘Big Brother’ Surveillance Software

October 27, 2018

Private Eye has also published a couple of articles on the use of surveillance software to scan the internet compiling information for use by private corporations, medical authorities and the government. These present a serious threat to privacy, democracy and human freedom.

In their edition for 5th – 18th October 2018, the magazine carried the following story about how the Canadian government was using such software to collect information on cannabis users and those sympathetic to dope use. It ran

Someone, somewhere is always listening to you online. In Canada, that someone is set to be the government.

A recently published tender is seeking a technology partner to “examine Canadian social media sentiment toward Canabis legalization, with emphasis on public safety issues, such as driving after using cannabis”. In practice, this means that technology such as software and machine learning will beused to analyse social media posts to determine who thinks what about weed,, “the frequency with which the identified attitudes and behaviours are reported and the co-occurrence of different attitudes and behaviours.” And, “where able, the contractor must also explore the demographic (and other available) correlates of the attitudes and behaviours identified in the analyses.”

The Canadian government won’t say whether the data collected, and the social media profiles of those tracked, will be shared with law enforcers, but it’s fair to assume this is exactly what will happen in the future. (p. 16).

And in their issue for the previous fortnight, 21st September to 4th October 2018, they carried this story about how MIT had developed surveillance software to help medical professionals discover who, online, may suffer depression.

Researcher at MIT have been working on software that can be used to predict the likelihood that a person has, or is likely to suffer from, depression, based on machine analysis of answers to a battery of questions. The software was said to be 77 percent accurate in its predictions.

This has obvious practical applications in healthcare. As the paper notes, “To treat depressed individuals, they must first be diagnosed. To obtain a diagnosis, depressed individuals must actively reach out to mental health professionals. In reality, it can be difficult for the depressed to attain professional attention due to constraints of mobility, cost, and motivation. Passive automated monitoring of human communication may address these constraints and provide better screening for depression.”

As the tech website thenextweb.com observed, “passive automated monitoring of human communication” means, er, eavesdropping – meaning that a likely outcome of this software is a machine listening to your phone calls or reading your emails and using that data to decide whether or not you’re likely to be depressed, without you knowing it’s happening or possibly even knowing why, say, your insurance premiums have gone up or you didn’t get that promotion.

I’ve no problems with developing techniques to better diagnose depression and its treatment. But as the article says, this allows insurance companies and employers to snoop on people without their awareness or consent, and which may have serious harmful consequences for themselves or their careers.

It’s the stuff that Privacy International have been warning about since the mid-90s. And they also warn of the dangers of function creep. Once one part of the government starts using such techniques, others join in and the scope of the surveillance expands.