Addressing the Alarming Systems of Surveillance Built By Library Vendors

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) are drawing attention to how we need to be Addressing the Alarming Systems of Surveillance Built By Library Vendors. This was triggered by a story in The Intercept that LexisNexis (is) to provide (a) giant database of personal information to ICE

The company’s databases offer an oceanic computerized view of a person’s existence; by consolidating records of where you’ve lived, where you’ve worked, what you’ve purchased, your debts, run-ins with the law, family members, driving history, and thousands of other types of breadcrumbs, even people particularly diligent about their privacy can be identified and tracked through this sort of digital mosaic. LexisNexis has gone even further than merely aggregating all this data: The company claims it holds 283 million distinct individual dossiers of 99.99% accuracy tied to “LexIDs,” unique identification codes that make pulling all the material collected about a person that much easier. For an undocumented immigrant in the United States, the hazard of such a database is clear. (The Intercept)

That LexisNexis has been building databases on people isn’t new. Sarah Brayne has a book about predictive policing titled Predict and Surveil where, among other things, she describes how the LAPD use Palantir and how police databases integrated in Palantir are enhanced by commercial databases like those sold by LexisNexis. (There is an essay that is an excerpt of the book here, Enter the Dragnet.)

I suspect environments like Palantir make all sorts of smaller and specialized databases more commercially valuable which is leading what were library database providers to expand their business. Before, a database about repossessions might be of interest to only a specialized community. Now it becomes linked to other information and is another dimension of data. In particular these databases provide information about all the people who aren’t in police databases. They provide the breadcrumbs needed to surveil those not documented elsewhere.

The SPARC call points out that we (academics, university libraries) have been funding these database providers. 

Dollars from library subscriptions, directly or indirectly, now support these systems of surveillance. This should be deeply concerning to the library community and to the millions of faculty and students who use their products each day and further underscores the urgency of privacy protections as library services—and research and education more generally—are now delivered primarily online.

This raises the question of our complicity and whether we could do without some of these companies. At a deeper level it raises questions about the curiosity of the academy. We are dedicated to knowledge as an unalloyed good and are at the heart of a large system of surveillance – surveillance of the past, of literature, of nature, of the cosmos, and of ourselves.

Editorial for IRIE Vol. 29 – The International Review of Information Ethics

A short editorial I wrote for the International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE) was just published, Editorial: On IRIE Vol. 29In it I talk about how we need to get beyond principles in the ethics of artificial intelligence as the Google Duplex story shows.

The editorial was for the second part of a collection of articles that came out of a conference that the Kule Institute for Advanced Study organized on AI, Ethics and Society in 2019.

I should add that KIAS has helped move the IRIE from its previous home to the open journal platform run by the University of Alberta Library. We are grateful for the fabulous support from the UofA Library.

Facial Recognition: What Happens When We’re Tracked Everywhere We Go?

When a secretive start-up scraped the internet to build a facial-recognition tool, it tested a legal and ethical limit — and blew the future of privacy in America wide open.

The New York Times has an in depth story about Clearview AI titled, Facial Recognition: What Happens When We’re Tracked Everywhere We Go? The story tracks the various lawsuits attempting to stop Clearview and suggests that Clearview may well win. They are gambling that scraping the web’s faces for their application, even if it violated terms of service, may be protected as free speech.

The story talks about the dangers of face recognition and how many of the algorithms can’t recognize people of colour as accurately which leads to more false positives where police end up arresting the wrong person. A broader worry is that this could unleash tracking at another scale.

There’s also a broader reason that critics fear a court decision favoring Clearview: It could let companies track us as pervasively in the real world as they already do online.

The arguments in favour of Clearview include the challenge that they are essentially doing to images what Google does to text searches. Another argument is that stopping face recognition enterprises would stifle innovation.

The story then moves on to talk about the founding of Clearview and the political connections of the founders (Thiel invested in Clearview too). Finally it talks about how widely available face recognition could affect our lives. The story quotes Alvaro Bedoya who started a privacy centre,

“When we interact with people on the street, there’s a certain level of respect accorded to strangers,” Bedoya told me. “That’s partly because we don’t know if people are powerful or influential or we could get in trouble for treating them poorly. I don’t know what happens in a world where you see someone in the street and immediately know where they work, where they went to school, if they have a criminal record, what their credit score is. I don’t know how society changes, but I don’t think it changes for the better.”

It is interesting to think about how face recognition and other technologies may change how we deal with strangers. Too much knowledge could be alienating.

The story closes by describing how Clearview AI helped identify some of the Capitol rioters. Of course it wasn’t just Clearview, but also a citizen investigators who named and shamed people based on photos released.

GameStop, AMC and the Stock Market’s Wild Ride This Week

GameStop Stock Price from Monday to Friday

Here’s what happened when investors using apps like Robinhood began wagering on a pool of unremarkable stocks.

We’ve all been following the story about GameStop, AMC and the Stock Market’s Wild Ride This Week. The story has a nice David and Goliath side where amateur traders stick it to the big Wall Street bullies, but it is also about the random power of internet-enabled crowds.

Continue reading GameStop, AMC and the Stock Market’s Wild Ride This Week

Why Automation is Different this Time

How is computerization affecting work and how might AI accelerate change? Erin pointed me to Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell a series of videos that explain things “in a nutshell” produced by Kurzgesagt, a German information design firm. They have a video (see above) on The Rise of Machines that nicely explains why automation is improving productivity while not increasing the number of jobs. If anything, automation driven by AI seems to be polarizing the market for human work into high-end cognitive jobs and low-end service jobs.

Digital humanities – How data analysis can enrich the liberal arts

But despite data science’s exciting possibilities, plenty of other academics object to it

The Economist has a nice Christmas Special on the Digital humanities – How data analysis can enrich the liberal arts. The article tells a bit of our history (starting with Busa, of course) and gives examples of new work like that of Ted Underwood. The note criticism about how DH may be sucking up all the money or corrupting the humanities, but they also point out how little DH gets from the NEH pot (some $60m out of $16bn) which is hardly evidence of a take over. The truth is, as they note, that the humanities are under attack again and the digital humanities don’t make much of a difference either way. The neighboring fields that I see students moving to are media arts, communication studies and specializations like criminology. Those are the threats, but also sanctuaries for the humanities.

Freedom Online Coalition joint statement on artificial intelligence

The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) has issued a joint statement on artificial intelligence (AI) and human rights.  While the FOC acknowledges that AI systems offer unprecedented opportunities for human development and innovation, the Coalition expresses concern over the documented and ongoing use of AI systems towards repressive and authoritarian purposes, including through facial recognition technology […]

The Freedom Online Coalition is a coalition of countries including Canada that “work closely together to coordinate their diplomatic efforts and engage with civil society and the private sector to support Internet freedom – free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online – worldwide.” It was founded in 2011 at the initiative of the Dutch.

FOC has just released Joint Statement on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights that calls for “transparency, traceability and accountability” in the design and deployment of AI systems. They also reaffirm that “states must abide by their obligations under international human rights law to ensure that human rights are fully respected and protected.” The statement ends with a series of recommendations or “Calls to action”.

What is important about this statement is the role of the state recommended. This is not a set of vapid principles that developers should voluntarily adhere to. It calls for appropriate legislation.

States should consider how domestic legislation, regulation and policies can identify, prevent, and mitigate risks to human rights posed by the design, development and use of AI systems, and take action where appropriate. These may include national AI and data strategies, human rights codes, privacy laws, data protection measures, responsible business practices, and other measures that may protect the interests of persons or groups facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

I note that yesterday the Liberals introduced a Digital Charter Implementation Act that could significantly change the regulations around data privacy. More on that as I read about it.

Thanks to Florence for pointing this FOC statement out to me.

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise – Infolet

I’m republishing here a blog essay originally in Italian that Domenico Fiormonte posted on Infolet that is worth reading,

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise

By Domenico Fiormonte

(All links removed. They can be found in the original post – English Translation by Desmond Schmidt)

A group of professors from Italian universities have written an open letter on the consequences of using proprietary digital platforms in distance learning. They hope that a discussion on the future of education will begin as soon as possible and that the investments discussed in recent weeks will be used to create a public digital infrastructure for schools and universities.


Dear colleagues and students,

as you already know, since the COVID-19 emergency began, Italian schools and universities have relied on proprietary platforms and tools for distance learning (including exams), which are mostly produced by the “GAFAM” group of companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon). There are a few exceptions, such as the Politecnico di Torino, which has adopted instead its own custom-built solutions. However, on July 16, 2020 the European Court of Justice issued a very important ruling, which essentially says that US companies do not guarantee user privacy in accordance with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As a result, all data transfers from the EU to the United States must be regarded as non-compliant with this regulation, and are therefore illegal.

A debate on this issue is currently underway in the EU, and the European Authority has explicitly invited “institutions, offices, agencies and organizations of the European Union to avoid transfers of personal data to the United States for new procedures or when securing new contracts with service providers.” In fact the Irish Authority has explicitly banned the transfer of Facebook user data to the United States. Finally, some studies underline how the majority of commercial platforms used during the “educational emergency” (primarily G-Suite) pose serious legal problems and represent a “systematic violation of the principles of transparency.”

In this difficult situation, various organizations, including (as stated below) some university professors, are trying to help Italian schools and universities comply with the ruling. They do so in the interests not only of the institutions themselves, but also of teachers and students, who have the right to study, teach and discuss without being surveilled, profiled and catalogued. The inherent risks in outsourcing teaching to multinational companies, who can do as they please with our data, are not only cultural or economic, but also legal: anyone, in this situation, could complain to the privacy authority to the detriment of the institution for which they are working.

However, the question goes beyond our own right, or that of our students, to privacy. In the renewed COVID emergency we know that there are enormous economic interests at stake, and the digital platforms, which in recent months have increased their turnover (see the study published in October by Mediobanca), now have the power to shape the future of education around the world. An example is what is happening in Italian schools with the national “Smart Class” project, financed with EU funds by the Ministry of Education. This is a package of “integrated teaching” where Pearson contributes the content for all the subjects, Google provides the software, and the hardware is the Acer Chromebook. (Incidentally, Pearson is the second largest publisher in the world, with a turnover of more than 4.5 billion euros in 2018.) And for the schools that join, it is not possible to buy other products.

Finally, although it may seem like science fiction, in addition to stabilizing proprietary distance learning as an “offer”, there is already talk of using artificial intelligence to “support” teachers in their work.

For all these reasons, a group of professors from various Italian universities decided to take action. Our initiative is not currently aimed at presenting an immediate complaint to the data protection officer, but at avoiding it, by allowing teachers and students to create spaces for discussion and encourage them to make choices that combine their freedom of teaching with their right to study. Only if the institutional response is insufficient or absent, we will register, as a last resort, a complaint to the national privacy authority. In this case the first step will be to exploit the “flaw” opened by the EU court ruling to push the Italian privacy authority to intervene (indeed, the former President, Antonello Soro, had already done so, but received no response). The purpose of these actions is certainly not to “block” the platforms that provide distance learning and those who use them, but to push the government to finally invest in the creation of a public infrastructure based on free software for scientific communication and teaching (on the model of what is proposed here and
which is already a reality for example in France, Spain and other European countries).

As we said above, before appealing to the national authority, a preliminary stage is necessary. Everyone must write to the data protection officer (DPO) requesting some information (attached here is the facsimile of the form for teachers we have prepared). If no response is received within thirty days, or if the response is considered unsatisfactory, we can proceed with the complaint to the national authority. At that point, the conversation will change, because the complaint to the national authority can be made not only by individuals, but also by groups or associations. It is important to emphasize that, even in this avoidable scenario, the question to the data controller is not necessarily a “protest” against the institution, but an attempt to turn it into a better working and study environment for everyone, conforming to European standards.

Conference: Artificial Intelligence for Information Accessibility

AI for Society and the Kule Institute for Advanced Research helped organize a conference on Artificial Intelligence for Information Accessibility (AI4IA) on September 28th, 2020. This conference was organized on the International Day for Universal Access to Information which is why the focus was on how AI can be important to access to information. An important partner in the conference was the UNESCO Information For All Programme (IFAP) Working Group on Information Accessibility (WGIA)

International Day for Universal Access to Information focused on the right to information in times of crisis and on the advantages of having constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information to save lives, build trust and help the formulation of sustainable policies through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Speakers talked about how vital access to accurate information is in these pandemic times and the role artificial intelligence could play as we prepare for future crises. Tied to this was a discussion of the important role for international policy initiatives and shared regulation in ensuring that smaller countries, especially in the Global South, benefit from developments in AI. The worry is that some countries won’t have the digital literacy or cadre of experts to critically guide the introduction of AI.

The AI4S Associate Director, Geoffrey Rockwell, kept conference notes on the talks here,  Conference Notes on AI4AI 2020.

Why Uber’s business model is doomed

Like other ridesharing companies, it made a big bet on an automated future that has failed to materialise, says Aaron Benanav, a researcher at Humboldt University

Aaron Benanav has an important opinion piece in The Guardian about Why Uber’s business model is doomed. Benanav argues that Uber and Lyft’s business model is to capture market share and then ditch the drivers they have employed for self-driving cars as they become reliable. In other words they are first disrupting the human taxi services so as to capitalize on driverless technology when it comes. Their current business is losing money as they feast on venture capital to get market share and if they can’t make the switch to driverless it is likely they go bankrupt.

This raises the question of whether we will see driverless technology good enough to oust the human drivers? I suspect that we will see it for certain geo-fenced zones where Uber and Lyft can pressure local governments to discipline the streets so as to be safe for driverless. In countries with chaotic and hard to accurately map streets (think medieval Italian towns) it may never work well enough.

All of this raises the deeper ethical issue of how driverless vehicles in particular and AI in general are being imagined and implemented. While there may be nothing unethical about driverless cars per se, there IS something unethical about a company deliberately bypassing government regulations, sucking up capital, driving out the small human taxi businesses, all in order to monopolize a market that they can then profit on by firing the drivers that got them there for driverless cars. Why is this the way AI is being commercialized rather than trying to create better public transit systems or better systems for helping people with disabilities? Who do we hold responsible for the decisions or lack of decisions that sees driverless AI technology implemented in a particularly brutal and illegal fashion. (See Benanav on the illegality of what Uber and Lyft are doing by forcing drivers to be self-employed contractors despite rulings to the contrary.)

It is this deeper set of issues around the imagination, implementation, and commercialization of AI that needs to be addressed. I imagine most developers won’t intentionally create unethical AIs, but many will create cool technologies that are commercialized by someone else in brutal and disruptive ways. Those commercializing and their financial backers (which are often all of us and our pension plans) will also feel no moral responsibility because we are just benefiting from (mostly) legal innovative businesses. Corporate social responsibility is a myth. At most corporate ethics is conceived of as a mix of public relations and legal constraints. Everything else is just fair game and the inevitable disruptions in the marketplace. Those who suffer are losers.

This then raises the issue of the ethics of anticipation. What is missing is imagination, anticipation and planning. If the corporate sector is rewarded for finding ways to use new technologies to game the system, then who is rewarded for planning for the disruption and, at a minimum, lessening the impact on the rest of us? Governments have planning units like city planning units, but in every city I’ve lived in these units are bypassed by real money from developers unless there is that rare thing – a citizen’s revolt. Look at our cities and their spread – despite all sorts of research and a history of spread, there is still very little discipline or planning to constrain the developers. In an age when government is seen as essentially untrustworthy planning departments start from a deficit of trust. Companies, entrepreneurs, innovation and yes, even disruption, are blessed with innocence as if, like children, they just do their thing and can’t be expected to anticipate the consequences or have to pick up after their play. We therefore wait for some disaster to remind everyone of the importance of planning and systems of resilience.

Now … how can teach this form of deeper ethics without sliding into political thought?