Posts Tagged ‘‘The Pedestrian’’

Surveillance Britain: Police Using Massively Inaccurate Facial Recognition Technology on Ordinary Brits

May 20, 2019

Here’s another piece of news that should further worry anyone concerned that Britain is slowly sliding down the tubes towards a surveillance state. The rozzers have launched a pilot scheme for a facial recognition system. They’re testing it out by photographing the fizzogs of ordinary British citizens walking down the streets. And it’s already resulted in one extremely dubious arrest. One man didn’t want to be photographed by the cops, and so he hid his face. The rozzers then pounced and fined him for ‘disorderly conduct’. This was filmed by the Beeb’s Politics Live. It’s completely disgraceful. The man had committed no crime, except to protect his own privacy against the state.

Mike in his article on this points out that there have been a couple of incidents where attempts to compile information on ordinary members of the public have resulted in disastrous mistakes, or deeply worrying infringements of personal freedom. For example, there were the innocent people, who suddenly found themselves with criminal records when their prospective employers started making background checks. Many of them were wrongly left without jobs because of this. And then there’s the DNA genetic database scandal, in which genetic material obtained from the public has been kept by the police, some of which was then illegally passed on for use in genetic research.

Mike also shows how this technology is also massively inaccurate. It had a failure rate of 96 per cent in eight trials in London between 2016 and 2018 according to the Independent. The software gave false positives, wrongly identifying innocent people as crims. It was also deployed twice in a shopping centre outside Stratford last year, where it had a failure rate of 100 per cent. This resulted in people being wrongly identified, including a 14 year old Black schoolboy, who was fingerprinted. The cops also stopped people for covering their faces and wearing hoods, and one man was fined for doing so in  Romford. The Independent found that shoppers were unaware their photos were being taken, despite the rozzers’ claim that the tests were overt, and campaigners have said that it’s being rolled out by stealth.

But despite its dangers and massive inaccuracy, the scheme is being defended by the Tories. Police Minister Nick Hurd has said that the technology offers ‘real opportunities’, said we are not a surveillance state, and that they have no intention of becoming one, and so the new technology must be used in a way that is sensitive to their impact on privacy, and proportionate.

To which Mike comments

Fail. It’s not sensitive to privacy and its use isn’t proportionate. But the Tories – and the police – won’t withdraw it, so we can only conclude that we do – indeed – live in a police surveillance state.

Police state Britain: Failed facial recognition pilot leads to fine for disorderly conduct. WTF?

This is precisely the type of information gathering that Privacy International and other campaigners were warning about in the ’90s. When DNA evidence first began to be collected, there were fears that it would be used to set up a national DNA database. In one incident, all the men in a small town where a rape had been committed were asked to supply samples of their DNA. There were concerns about what would happen to it afterwards, and that the material would be retained, even though the men were innocent. There were also fears that the collection of such samples would go from being simple requests to demands, and that anyone who refused, would automatically come under suspicion, even though they may be innocent.

It also reminds of the way the police also started compiling records in the 1980s of people they considered suspicious, as revealed in the Beeb documentary, Secret State. Perfectly innocent people suddenly had police files opened on them and their movements recorded for reasons that reflected the prejudices of the cops, rather than anything they’d done. Like being punks. One teenage girl was marked down as a potential suspect simply because she was pregnant and there was no father.

I am also not surprised by the massive failure rate of the technology at the moment. It seems par for the course that any and all information technology adopted by the state should be seriously flawed. Like all the computer systems supplied to local authorities in the 1990s by outsourcing companies like Crapita.

Black people are particularly at risk from these systems. The I newspaper a few weeks ago reported on the concerns about the massive under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the computer industry. Only four per cent of employees in one of the big American tech giants came from ethnic minorities. As a result, the pattern recognition system they developed misidentified Black people as gorillas. Which makes you wonder who programmed this wretched system. The Klan?

As for not becoming a surveillance society, privacy campaigners have warned repeatedly about the dangers of ‘function creep’. Once one innovation or strategy is adopted, other agencies will want to use it, and so it will expand. Also, other forms have surveillance have become normalised. There were serious concerns about the use of CCTV cameras when they first appeared. Alan Moore deliberately wrote them into his depiction of a Fascist Britain in the V for Vendetta comic. He thought at the time that this would really shock people. Niall Ferguson shared his fears. He was also alarmed at how ubiquitous CCTV cameras had become here after he returned from a visit to China. But he was also astonished at how his concerns were not shared by anyone else.

And with the campaign by the IT and automobile industries, I wonder how long it will be before we get the repressive police state and its robots described by the great SF writer Ray Bradbury in his short story, ‘The Pedestrian’. In this tale, a man is stopped by a robotic police car simply for taking a walk in the middle of the night.

It’s SF as the ‘literature of warning’. It’s not meant to be prophetic. But somehow that seems to be the future these technologies are leading to.

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The Young Turks on Pizza Delivery Drivers Being Replaced by Driverless Cars

September 3, 2017

This is probably going to be the reality behind the driverless cars the car industry and the media have been hyping. In this short clip from The Young Turks, the hosts Ana Kasparian and Brett Ehrlich report and comment on the story that Domino’s Pizzas are planning to replace their pizza delivery people with driverless cars.

It’s only a trial run at the moment. They intend to go through their customers at random, and ask them if they’re happy with their pizza delivered by a driverless car instead. The vehicle will take a maximum of four pizzas to them. To get their orders, the customers will have to punch in a code into a keypad on the car.

After a bit of silly banter about the number of pizzas people usually order, they get down to discussing what this really represents. Kasparian says that when they usually talk about American jobs being lost, they’re usually reporting on corporate outsourcing. But automation is the other way in which people are losing their jobs in America. Kasparian she states that she isn’t against technological innovation, but points out that not only are people going to lose their jobs as pizza delivery staff, but they’re also going to lose an opportunity to acquire useful skills to succeed in a very competitive jobs market. She also states that we also need to give young people proper, affordable college education as well.

Domino’s has released a statement saying that they have at the moment 100,000 pizza delivery people. They hope that when this comes in, they will be able to find other positions within the company. The Turks end by saying that they hope so too.

To be fair, the BBC has carried news and documentary programmes, which forecast that in the coming decades, 1/3 of all retail jobs will be lost to automation. Nevertheless, whenever you see driverless cars appear, the overwhelming message is one of boundless enthusiasm, with the presenters raving about the technology. Clarkson went on a driverless truck on Top Gear, and went almost berserk with excitement when it started to make its way without human guidance.

Driverless trucks are due to be trialed on roads in Britain, according to a report in the I newspaper. They’re going to be tested in groups of three. I talked about this technology and its threats to jobs with a friend a little while ago. He told me that there are about 40,000 truckers in Britain, so that’s 40,000 people, who stand to lose their jobs.

Counterpunch has run an article on this, stating that there’s no desire for the cars from ordinary people. They’re being hyped and pushed by the insurance companies, who hope that their appearance and promotion as being safer than human driving will allow them to put up their premiums for people, who won’t use them.

What also struck me was how cold, lonely and impersonal the future represented by this type of automation is. In much SF depictions of an automated future, the machines performing human jobs also have something like human cognitive abilities and personalities. Long term 2000 AD readers will remember Dredd’s little robotic companion, Walter the Wobot. The character had a lisp and was a gentle soul, providing a contrast with the brutal machismo of Mega City 1’s toughest lawman. Or the robots in the Robohunter strip. These were extremely strong characters with all the traits, foibles and psychological failings of the human creators, including stupidity, thuggishness and all-round criminality. Like the God-Droid, the automatated underworld boss, a machine version of Marlon Brando with a sign stamped across its stomach reading ‘Omerta’, or the incendiary temperament of Molotov, the automatic cocktail-shaker and head of the Amalgamated Androids’ Union, who lectures Spade on the evils of human exploitation. Or Ro-Jaws, a chirpy, bolshie, foul-mouthed sewer droid, and his more dignified mate, the war-robot Hammerstein, and the moronic and sadistic Mek-Quake, the main characters in the Robusters strip, and its spin-off, ABC Warriors.

These fictional machines all had real, authentic characters. They had minds and characters like human beings, even if their bodies and brains were of metal and plastic. And so the strips’ writers could use them to make serious satirical points amidst the cartoon violence and mayhem. From the first, the ABC Warriors strip included a bitter commentary on the horrors of war, and the way soldiers lives were sacrificed by an officer and political class insulated from the actual fighting. The fact that robots were machines, with no rights, also allowed 2000 AD to explore real issues like slavery, racism, and institutionalized discrimination with deliberate, and sometimes very obvious parallels to the experience of Black Americans before Civil Rights.

But the real machines taking our jobs won’t even have personalities, friendly or otherwise, with which we will interact. Admittedly, there isn’t much social interaction with the mail and other delivery people, who turn up at our doors. The conversation is naturally very limited. But with these machines, we won’t even have that. Just a car turning up, following by the customer trudging out to punch in a code to open the doors.

Silent, efficient, and coldly impersonal.

And this is going to make the atomization and despair of contemporary western, and particularly American society, much worse. I’ve also come across a series of videos Chris Hedges has also made, in which he talks about the new American Fascism, and specifically the Religious Right. I think Hedges is probably an atheist, from some of the things he has said about the religious right promoting magical thinking. But he has a divinity degree, his father was a politically radical Presbyterian clergyman, his mother was also a divinity student, and so Hedges doesn’t hate religion or regard the antics of the religious right and the frauds and bigots leading it as normal. Indeed, he is at pains to show that, for all that they scream that they represent traditional values, they don’t. He states in one video that they’re as far from traditional Christian religious doctrine and practice as the religious liberals they despise.

One of the points he makes in these videos is that these bigots have been assisted in their rise to power by the social atomization of modern American society. In places like LA there are no pavements, so people can’t walk down the street. You have to drive. And so people drive straight to work, and then straight home. They don’t really meet or interact with anyone else. And the religious right has exploited this atomization, this alienation, by offering people a community in the ideologically enclosed space of their megachurches. And the people they target are those who have suffered from the attacks of neoliberalism – people in the rustbelt, who have seen their jobs decline and their communities fall into poverty along with them.

Other observers of the American Right have said the same. One of the essays in the book attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservativism, states that these b*stards are able to get away with promoting bigotry and racism, because of the decline in genuine, working class communities. The jobs are going, and White flight has meant that Whites have moved out of racially mixed areas in the centres of town to the suburbs. Community centres have also closed, and the attack on trade unions has also destroyed this pillar of working class community. The result is that the individual is left isolated from both people of other ethnic groups, and similar people to him- or herself. He or she goes to work and comes home. This isolation leaves them vulnerable to the vile propaganda spewed at them by bigots like Jerry Falwell and the rest of the rightwing televangelists that were thrown up by the 1980s.

This atomization and alienation is one of the fundamental characteristics of totalitarian societies of the Left and Right. In the Soviet Union, society was arranged so that people were deliberately isolated from each other. The only way of keeping in contact and forming communities and relationships, at least officially, was through the party organisations. Ditto with the Third Reich. Hitler boasted that they would never leave the individual alone, not even in a poker club.

And the driverless cars also remind me of another dystopian vision of the future, that of Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian. This is a tale by one of the great masters of SF, in which a man walking late at night is stopped and picked up by a police car. The car’s not crewed. It’s entirely automatic. Bradbury describes the computer punchcards being processed as the machine thinks. The machine asks the man why he’s on the streets so late at night. He replies simply that he just wanted to take a walk.

Already there are places in some American cities, where you can’t walk. Mike found this out a few years ago when he visited friends in California. You had to drive everywhere, even down to the local stores. Which means that the cold future of The Pedestrian really ain’t that far away.