Surveillance. Are we defenseless?

Recent advancements in AI that are increasing exponentially (in areas such as facial recognition) demonstrate a level of sophistication in surveillance that renders most of us indefensible. There is a new transparency, and virtually every global citizen is a potential microbe for scrutiny beneath the microscope. I was blogging about this before I ever set eyes on the CBS drama Person of Interest, but the premise that surveillance could be ubiquitous is very real. The series depicts a mega, master computer that sees everything, but the idea of gathering a networked feed of the world’s cameras and a host of other accessible devices into a central data facility where AI sorts, analyzes and learns what kind of behavior is potentially threatening, is well within reach. It isn’t even a stretch that something like it already exists.

As with most technologies, however, they do not exist in a vacuum. Technologies converge. Take, for example, a recent article in WIRED about how accurate facial recognition is becoming even when the subject is pixelated or blurred. A common tactic to obscure the identity of video witness or an innocent bystander is to blur or to pixelate their face; a favored technique of Google Maps. Just go to any big city street view and Google has systematically obscured license plates and faces. Today these methods no longer compete against state-of-the-art facial recognition systems.

The next flag is the escalating sophistication of hacker technology. One of the most common methods is malware. Through an email or website, malware can infect a computer and raise havoc. Criminals often use it to ransom a victim’s computer before removing the infection. But not all hackers are criminals, per se. The FBI is pushing for the ability to use malware to digital wiretap or otherwise infiltrate potentially thousands of computers using only a single warrant. Ironically, FBI Director James Comey recently admitted that he puts tape over the camera on his personal laptop. I wrote about this a few weeks back What does that say about the security of our laptops and devices?

Is the potential for destructive attacks on our devices is so pervasive that the only defense we have is duct tape? We can track as far back as Edward Snowden, the idea that the NSA can listen in on your phone even when it’s off. And since 2014, experts have confirmed that the technology exists. In fact, albeit sketchy, some apps purport to do exactly that. You won’t find them in the app store (for obvious reasons), but there are websites where you can click the “buy” button. According to the site Stalkertools.com, which doesn’t pass the legit news site test, (note the use of awesome) one these apps promises that you can:

• Record all phone calls made and received, hear everything being said because you can record all calls and even listen to them at a later date.
• GPS Tracking, see on a map on your computer, the exact location of the phone
• See all sites that are opened on the phone’s web browser
• Read all the messages sent and received on IM apps like Skype, Whatsapp and all the rest
• See all the passwords and logins to sites that the person uses, this is thanks to the KeyLogger feature.
• Open and close apps with the awesome “remote control” feature
• Read all SMS messages and see all photos send and received on text messages
• See all photos taken with the phone’s camera

“How it work” “ The best monitoring for protect family” — Yeah. Sketchy.
“How it work” “ The best monitoring for protect family” — Sketchy, you think?

I visited one of these sites (above) and, frankly, I would never click a button on a website that can’t form a sentence in English, and I would not recommend that you do either. Earlier this year, the UK Independent published an article where Kelli Burns, a mass communication professor at the University of South Florida, alleged that Facebook regularly listens to users phone conversations to see what people are talking about. Of course, she said she can’t be certain of that.

Nevertheless, it’s out there, and if it has not already happened eventually, some organization or government will find a way to network the access points and begin collecting information across a comprehensive matrix of data points. And, it would seem that we will have to find new forms of duct tape to attempt to manage whatever privacy we have left. I found a site that gives some helpful advice for determining whether someone is tapping your phone.

Good luck.

 

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Invalid?

In a scene from the 2007 movie Gattaca, co-star Uma Thurman steals a follicle of hair from of love-interest Ethan Hawke and takes it to the local DNA sequencing booth (presumably they’re everywhere, like McDonald’s) to find out if Hawke’s DNA is worthy of her affections. She passes the follicle in a paper thin wrapper through a pass-through window as if she were buying a ticket for a movie. The attendant asks, “You want a full sequence?” Thurman confirms, and then waits anxiously. Meanwhile, others step up to windows to submit their samples. A woman who just kissed her boyfriend has her lips swabbed and assures the attendant that the sample is only a couple of minutes old. In about a minute, Thurman receives a plastic tube with the results rolled up inside. Behind the glass, a voice says, “Nine point three. Quite a catch!”

 

In the futuristic society depicted in the movie, humans are either “valid” or “invalid.” Though discrimination based on your genetic profile is illegal and referred to as “genoism,” it is widely known to be a distinguishing factor in employment, promotion, and finding the right soul-mate.

Enter the story of Illumina, which I discovered by way of a FastCompany article earlier this week. Illumina is a hardware/software company. One might imagine them as the folks who make the fictitious machines behind the DNA booths in a science fiction future. Except they are already making them now. The company, which few of us have ever heard of, has 5,000 employees and more than $2 billion in annual revenues. Illumina’s products are selling like hotcakes, in both the clinical and consumer spheres.

“Startups have already entered the clinical market with applications for everything from “liquid biopsy” tests to monitor late-stage cancers (an estimated $1 billion market by 2020, according to the business consulting firm Research and Markets), to non-invasive pregnancy screenings for genetic disorders like Down Syndrome ($2.4 billion by the end of 2022).”

According to FastCo,

“Illumina has captured more than 70% of the sequencing market with these machines that it sells to academics, pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and more.”

You and I can do this right now. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe will work up a profile of your DNA from a little bit of saliva and sent through the mail. In a few weeks after submitting your sample, these companies will send you a plethora of reports on your carrier status (for passing on inherited conditions), ancestry reports that track your origins, wellness reports, such as your propensity to be fat or thin, and your traits like blue eyes or a unibrow. All of this costs about $200. Considering that sequencing DNA on this scale was a pipe dream ten years ago, it’s kind of a big deal. They don’t sequence everything; that requires one of Illumina’s more sophisticated machines and costs about $3,000.

If you put this technology in the context of my last post about exponential technological growth. Then it is easy to see that the price of machines, the speed of analysis, and the cost of a report is only going to come down, and faster than we think. At this point, everything will be arriving faster than we think. Here, if only to get your attention, I ring the bell. Illumina is investing in companies that bring this technology to your smartphone. With one company, Helix, “A customer might check how quickly they metabolize caffeine via an app developed by a nutrition company. Helix will sequence the customers’ genomic data and store it centrally, but the nutrition company delivers the report back to the user.” The team from Helix, “[…]that the number of people who have been sequenced will drastically increase […]that it will be 90% of people within 20 years.” (So, probably ten years is a better guess.)

According to the article, the frontier for genomics is expanding.

“What comes next is writing DNA, and not just reading it. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 are making it cheaper and faster to move genes around, which has untold consequences for changing the environment and treating disease.”

CRISPR can do a lot more than that.

But, as usual, all of these developments focus on the bright side, the side that saves lives and not the uncomfortable or unforeseen. There is the potential that you DNA will determine your insurance rates, or even if you get insurance. Toying around with these realms, it is not difficult to imagine that you can “Find anyone’s DNA,” like you can find anybody’s address or phone number. Maybe we see this feature incorporated into dating sites. You won’t have to steal a hair follicle from your date; it will already be online, and if they don’t publish it, certainly people will ask, “What do you have to hide?”

And then there’s the possibility that your offspring might inherit an unfavorable trait, like that unibrow or maybe Down Syndrome. So maybe those babies will never be born, or we’ll use CRISPER to make sure the nose is straight, the eyes are green, the skin is tan, and the IQ is way up there. CRISPER gene editing and splicing will be expensive, of course. Some will be able to afford it. The rest? Well, they’ll have to find a way to love their children flaws and all. So here are my questions? Will this make us more human or less human? Will our DNA become just another way to judge each other on how smart, or thin, or good looking, or talented? Is it just another way to distinguish between the haves and have-nots?

If the apps are already in design, Uma Thurman may not have long to wait.

 

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Transcendent Plan

 

One of my oft-quoted sources for future technology is Ray Kurzweil. A brilliant technologist, inventor, and futurist, Kurzweil seems to see it all very clearly, almost as though he were at the helm personally. Some of Kurzweil’s theses are crystal clear for me, such as an imminent approach toward the Singularity in a series of innocuous, ‘seemingly benign,’ steps. I also agree with his Law of Accelerating Returns1 which posits that technology advances exponentially. In a recent interview with the Silicon Valley Business Journal, he nicely illustrated that idea.

“Exponentials are quite seductive because they start out sub-linear. We sequenced one ten-thousandth of the human genome in 1990 and two ten-thousandths in 1991. Halfway through the genome project, 7 ½ years into it, we had sequenced 1 percent. People said, “This is a failure. Seven years, 1 percent. It’s going to take 700 years, just like we said.” Seven years later it was done, because 1 percent is only seven doublings from 100 percent — and it had been doubling every year. We don’t think in these exponential terms. And that exponential growth has continued since the end of the genome project. These technologies are now thousands of times more powerful than they were 13 years ago, when the genome project was completed.”

Kurzweil says the same kinds of leaps are approaching for solar power, resources, disease, and longevity. Our tendency to think linear instead of exponential means that we can deceive ourselves into believing that technologies that, ‘just aren’t there yet,’ are ‘a long way off.’ In reality, they may be right around the corner.

I’m not as solid in my affirmation of Kurzweil (and others) when it comes to some of his other predictions. Without reading too much between the lines, you can see that there is a philosophy that is helping to drive Kurzweil. Namely, he doesn’t want to die. Of course, who does? But his is a quest to deny death on a techno-transcendental level. Christianity holds that eternal life awaits the believer in Jesus Christ, other religions are satisfied that our atoms return to the greater cosmos, or that reincarnation is the next step. It would appear that Kurzweil has no time for faith. His bet on science and technology. He states,

“I think we’re very much on track to have human-level AI by 2029, which has been my consistent prediction for 20 years, and then to be able to send nanobots into the brain in the 2030s and connect our biological neocortex to synthetic neocortex in the cloud.”

In the article mentioned above, Kurzweil states that his quest to live forever is not just about the 200-plus supplements that he takes daily. He refers to this as “Bridge One.” Bridge One buys us time until technology catches up. Then “Bridge Two,” the “biotechnology revolution” takes over and radically extends our life. If all else fails, our mind will be uploaded to Cloud (which will have evolved to a synthetic neocortex), though it remains to be seen whether the sum-total of a mind also equals consciousness in some form.

For many who struggle with the idea of death, religious or not, I wonder if when we dissect it, it is not the fear of physical decrepitude that scares us, but the loss of consciousness; that unique ability of humans to comprehend their world, share language and emotions, to create and contemplate?

I would pose that it is indeed that consciousness that makes us human (along with the injustice at the thought that we feel that we might lose it. It would seem that transcendence is in order. In one scenario this transcendence comes from God, in another ‘we are as Gods.’2

So finally, I wonder whether all of these small, exponentially replicating innovations—culminating to the point where we are accessing Cloud-data only by thinking, or communicating via telepathy, or writing symphonies for eternity—will make us more or less human. If we decide that we are no happier, no more content or fulfilled, is there any going back?

Seeing as it might be right around the corner, we might want to think about these things now rather than later.

 

1. Kurzweil, R. (2001) The Law of Accelerating Returns, KurzweilAI . Kurzweil AI. Available at: http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns (Accessed: October 10, 2015). 
2. Brand, Stewart. “WE ARE AS GODS.” The Whole Earth Catalog, September 1968, 1-58. Accessed May 04, 2015. http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/1010/article/195/we.are.as.gods.
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Did we design this future?

 

I have held this discussion before, but a recent video from FastCompany reinvigorates a provocative aspect concerning our design future, and begs the question: Is it a future we’ve designed? It centers around the smartphone. There are a lot of cool things about our smartphones like convenience, access, connectivity, and entertainment, just to name a few. It’s hard to believe that Steve Jobs introduced the very first iPhone just nine years ago on June 29, 2007. It was an amazing device, and it’s no shocker that it took off like wildfire. According to stats site Statista, “For 2016, the number of smartphone users is forecast to reach 2.08 billion.” Indeed, we can say, they are everywhere. In the world of design futures, the smartphone becomes Exhibit A of how an evolutionary design change can spawn a complex system.

Most notably, there are the billions of apps that are available to users that promise a better way to calculate tips, listen to music, sleep, drive, search, exercise, meditate, or create. Hence, there is a gigantic network of people who make their living supplying user services. These are direct benefits to society and commerce. No doubt, our devices have also often saved us countless hours of analog work, enabled us to manage our arrivals and departures, and keep in contact (however tenuous) with our friends and acquaintances. Smartphones have helped us find people in distress and help us locate persons with evil intent. But, there are also unintended consequences, like legislation to keep us from texting and driving because these actions have also taken lives. There are issues with dependency and links to sleep disorders. Some lament the deterioration of human, one-on-one, face-to-face, dialog and the distracted conversations at dinner or lunch. There are behavioral disorders, too. Since 2010 there has been a Smartphone Addiction Rating Scale (SARS) and the Young Internet Addiction Scale (YIAS). Overuse of mobile phones has prompted dozens of studies into adolescents as well as adults, and there are links to increased levels of ADHD, and a variety of psychological disorders including stress and depression.

So, while we rely on our phones for all the cool things they enable us to do we are—in less than ten years—experiencing a host of unintended consequences. One of these is privacy. Whether Apple or another brand, the intricacies of smartphone technology are substantially the same. This video shows why your phone is so easy to hack, to activate your phone’s microphone, camera, access your contact list or track your location. And, with the right tools, it is frighteningly simple. What struck me most after watching the video was not how much we are at risk of being hacked, eavesdropped on, or perniciously viewed, but the comments from a woman on the street. She said, “I don’t have anything to hide.” It is not the first millennial that I have heard say this. And that is what, perhaps, bothers me most—our adaptability based on the slow incremental erosion of what used to be our private space.

We can’t rest responsibility entirely on the smartphone. We have to include the idea of social media going back to the days of (amusingly) MySpace. Sharing yourself with a group of close friends gradually gave way to the knowledge that the photo or info may also get passed along to complete strangers. It wasn’t, perhaps your original intention, but, oh well, it’s too late now. Maybe that’s when we decided that we had better get used to sharing our space, our photos (compromising or otherwise), our preferences, our adventures and misadventures with outsiders, even if they were creeps trolling for juicy tidbits. As we chalked up that seemingly benign modification of our behavior to adaptability, the first curtain fell. If someone is going to watch me, and there’s nothing I can do about it, then I may as well get used to it. We adjusted as a defense mechanism. Paranoia was the alternative, and no one wants to think of themselves as paranoid.

A few weeks ago, I posted an image of Mark Zuckerberg’s laptop with tape over the camera and microphone. Maybe he’s more concerned with privacy since his world is full of proprietary information. But, as we become more accustomed to being both constantly connected and potentially tracked or watched, when will the next curtain fall? If design is about planning, directing or focusing, then the absence of design would be ignoring, neglecting or turning away. I return to the first question in this post: Did we design this future? If not, what did we expect?

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