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.

CEO of exam monitoring software Proctorio apologises for posting student’s chat logs on Reddit

Australian students who have raised privacy concerns describe the incident involving a Canadian student as ‘freakishly disrespectful’

The Guardian has a story about CEO of exam monitoring software Proctorio apologises for posting student’s chat logs on Reddit. Proctorio provides software for monitoring (proctoring) students on their own laptop while they take exams. It uses the video camera and watches the keyboard to presumably watch whether the student tries to cheat on a timed exam. Apparently a UBC student claimed that he couldn’t get help in a timely fashion from Proctorio when he was using it (presumably with a timer going for the exam.) This led to Australian students criticizing the use of Proctorio which led to the CEO arguing that the UBC student had lied and providing a partial transcript to show that the student was answered in a timely fashion. That the CEO would post a partial transcript shows that:

  1. staff at Proctorio do have access to the logs and transcripts of student behaviour, and
  2. that they don’t have the privacy protection protocols in place to prevent the private information from being leaked.

I can’t help feeling that there is a pattern here since we also see senior politicians sometimes leaking data about citizens who criticize them. The privacy protocols may be in place, but they aren’t observed or can’t be enforced against the senior staff (who are the ones that presumably need to do the enforcing.) You also sense that the senior person feels that the critic abrogated their right to privacy by lying or misrepresenting something in their criticism.

This raises the question of whether someone who misuses or lies about a service deserves the ongoing protection of the service. Of course, we want to say that they should, but nations like the UK have stripped citizens like Shamina Begum of citizenship and thus their rights because they behaved traitorously, joining ISIS. Countries have murdered their own citizens that became terrorists without a trial. Clearly we feel that in some cases one can unilaterally remove someones rights, including the right to life, because of their behaviour.

MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs

Vinay Prabhu, chief scientist at UnifyID, a privacy startup in Silicon Valley, and Abeba Birhane, a PhD candidate at University College Dublin in Ireland, pored over the MIT database and discovered thousands of images labelled with racist slurs for Black and Asian people, and derogatory terms used to describe women. They revealed their findings in a paper undergoing peer review for the 2021 Workshop on Applications of Computer Vision conference.

Another one of those “what were they thinking when they created the dataset stories” from The Register tells about how MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs. The MIT Tiny Images dataset was created automatically using scripts that used the WordNet database of terms which itself held derogatory terms. Nobody thought to check either the terms taken from WordNet or the resulting images scoured from the net. As a result there are not only lots of images for which permission was not secured, but also racists, sexist, and otherwise derogatory labels on the images which in turn means that if you train an AI on these it will generate racist/sexist results.

The article also mentions a general problem with academic datasets. Companies like Facebook can afford to hire actors to pose for images and can thus secure permissions to use the images for training. Academic datasets (and some commercial ones like the Clearview AI  database) tend to be scraped and therefore will not have the explicit permission of the copyright holders or people shown. In effect, academics are resorting to mass surveillance to generate training sets. One wonders if we could crowdsource a training set by and for people?

Obscure Indian cyber firm spied on politicians, investors worldwide

A cache of data reviewed by Reuters provides insight into the operation, detailing tens of thousands of malicious messages designed to trick victims into giving up their passwords that were sent by BellTroX between 2013 and 2020.

It was bound to happen. Reuters has an important story that an  Obscure Indian cyber firm spied on politicians, investors worldwide. The firm, BellTroX InfoTech Services, offered hacking services to private investigators and others. While we focus on state-sponsored hacking and misinformation there is a whole murky world of commercial hacking going on.

The Citizen Lab played a role in uncovering what BellTroX was doing. They have a report here about Dark Basin, a hacking-for-hire outfit, that they link to BellTroX. The report is well worth the read as it details the infrastructure uncovered, the types of attacks, and the consequences.

The growth of a hack-for-hire industry may be fueled by the increasing normalization of other forms of commercialized cyber offensive activity, from digital surveillance to “hacking back,” whether marketed to private individuals, governments or the private sector. Further, the growth of private intelligence firms, and the ubiquity of technology, may also be fueling an increasing demand for the types of services offered by BellTroX. At the same time, the growth of the private investigations industry may be contributing to making such cyber services more widely available and perceived as acceptable.

They conclude that the growth of this industry is a threat to civil society.

What is it became so affordable and normalized that any unscrupulous person could hire hackers to harass an ex-girlfriend or neighbour?

Is this crisis a turning point?

The era of peak globalisation is over. For those of us not on the front line, clearing the mind and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand.

John Gray has written an essay in the New Statesman on Why this crisis is a turning point in history. He argues that the era of hyperglobalism is at an end and many systems may not survive the shift to something different. Many may think we will, after a bit of isolated pain, return to the good old expanding wealth, but the economic crisis that is now emerging may break that dream. Governments and nations may be broken by collapsing systems.

The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination.

Evgeny Morozov has crisp essay in The Guardina on how The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level. He argues that neoliberalist austerity cut our public services back in ways that now we see are endangering lives, but it is solutionism that constraining our ideas about what we can do to deal with situations. If we look for a technical solution we give up on questioning the underlying defunding of the commons.

There is nice interview between Natasha Dow Shüll Morozov on The Folly of Technological Solutionism: An Interview with Evgeny Morozov in which they talk about his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism and gamification.

Back in The Guardian, he ends his essay warning that we should focus on picking between apps – between solutions. We should get beyond solutions like apps to thinking politically.

The feast of solutionism unleashed by Covid-19 reveals the extreme dependence of the actually existing democracies on the undemocratic exercise of private power by technology platforms. Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms.

Facebook to Pay $550 Million to Settle Facial Recognition Suit

It was another black mark on the privacy record of the social network, which also reported its quarterly earnings.

The New York Times has a story on how Facebook to Pay $550 Million to Settle Facial Recognition Suit (Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac, Jan. 29, 2020.) The Illinois case has to do with Facebook’s face recognition technology that was part of Tag Suggestions that would suggest names for people in photos. Apparently in Illinois it is illegal to harvest biometric data without consent. The Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) passed in 2008 “guards against the unlawful collection and storing of biometric information.” (Wikipedia entry)

BIPA suggests a possible answer to the question of what is unethical about face recognition. While I realize that a law is not ethics (and vice versa) BIPA hints at one of the ways we can try to unpack the ethics of face recognition. The position suggested by BIPA would go something like this:

  • Face recognition is dependent on biometric data which is extracted from an image or in other form of scan.
  • To collect and store biometric data one needs the consent of the person whose data is collected.
  • The data has to be securely stored.
  • The data has to be destroyed in a timely manner.
  • If there is consent, secure storage, and timely deletion of the data, then the system/service can be said to not be unethical.

There are a number of interesting points to be made about this position. First, it is not the gathering, storing and providing access to images of people that is at issue. Face recognition is an ethical issue because biometric data about a person is being extracted, stored and used. Thus Google Image Search is not an issue as they are storing data about whole images while FB stores information about the face of individual people (along with associated information.)

This raises issues about the nature of biometric data. What is the line between a portrait (image) and biometric information? Would gathering biographical data about a person become biometric at some point if it contained descriptions of their person?

Second, my reading is that a service like Clearview AI could also be sued if they scrape images of people in Illinois and extract biometric data. This could provide an answer to the question of what is ethically wrong about the Clearview AI service. (See my previous blog entry on this.)

Third, I think there is a missing further condition that should be specified, names that the company gathering the biometric data should identify the purpose for which they are gathering it when seeking consent and limit their use of the data to the identified uses. When they no longer need the data for the identified use, they should destroy it. This is essentially part of the PIPA principle of Limiting Use, Disclosure and Retention. It is assumed that if one is to delete data in a timely fashion there will be some usage criteria that determine timeliness, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes it is just the passage of time.

Of course, the value of data mining is often in the unanticipated uses of data like biometric data. Unanticipated uses are, by definition, not uses that were identified when seeking consent, unless the consent was so broad as to be meaningless.

No doubt more issues will occur to me.

Avast closes Jumpshot over data privacy backlash, but transparency is the real issue

Avast will shutter its Jumpshot subsidiary just days after an exposé targeted the way it sold user data. But transparency remains the bigger issue.

From Venturbeat (via Slashdot) the news that antivirus company Avast closes Jumpshot over data privacy backlash, but transparency is the real issue (Paul Sawers, Jan. 30, 2020). Avast had been found to have been gathering detailed data about users of its antivirus tools and then selling anonymized data through Jumpshot. The data was of sufficient detail (apparently down to an “all clicks feed”) that it would probably be possible to deanonymize data. So what was the ethical problem here?

As the title of the story advertises the issue was not that Avast was concealing what it was doing, it is more a matter of how transparent it was about what it was doing. The data collection was “opt out” and so you had to go find the setting rather than being asked if you wanted to “opt in.” Jumpstart was apparently fairly open about their business. The information the provided to help you make a decision was not particularly deceptive (see image below), but it is typical of software to downplay the identifiability of data collected.

Some of the issue is around consent. What realistically constitutes consent these days? Does one need to opt-in for there to be meaningful consent? Does one need sufficient information to make a decision, and if so, what would that be?

In 2020, let’s stop AI ethics-washing and actually do something – MIT Technology Review

But talk is just that—it’s not enough. For all the lip service paid to these issues, many organizations’ AI ethics guidelines remain vague and hard to implement.

Thanks to Oliver I came across this call for an end to ethics-washing by artificial intelligence reporter Karen Hao in the MIT Technology Review, In 2020, let’s stop AI ethics-washing and actually do something The call echoes something I’ve been talking about – that we need to move beyond guidelines, lists of principles, and checklists.  She nicely talks about some of the initiatives to hold AI accountable that are taking place and what should happen. Read on if you want to see what I think we need.

Continue reading In 2020, let’s stop AI ethics-washing and actually do something – MIT Technology Review