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A wave of ‘robot surveillance’ could threaten our civil liberties, warns ACLU

A wave of ‘robot surveillance’ could threaten our civil liberties, warns ACLU
[Photo: Paweł Czerwiński/Unsplash]

While surveillance cameras have long been common in the United States, a new breed of AI-enabled devices could endanger civil liberties and even reshape how people behave in public, the American Civil Liberties Union warns in a new report.

“Cameras that collect and store video just in case it is needed are being transformed into robot guards that actively and constantly watch people,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU, in a statement. “It is as if a great surveillance machine has been growing up around us, but largely dumb and inert—and is now, in a meaningful sense, waking up. The end result, if left unchecked, will be a society where everyone’s public movements and behavior are subject to constant and comprehensive evaluation and judgment by what are essentially AI security guards.”

Thanks to recent advances in AI, camera systems are rapidly gaining the ability to recognize people by their faces and walking patterns, spot “anomalous” behavior, and monitor people’s eye movements and apparent emotions, according to the report. While proponents say that could help businesses understand who’s visiting their stores and help police officers track suspects, the ACLU warns that it could exacerbate problems with racist policing—such as if cameras flag people in neighborhoods where they’re not the typical race as anomalous—and lead people to restrict their behavior in public so they don’t raise digital flags.

“Think about what it feels like when we’re driving down the highway and we see a police cruiser driving behind us,” the group says. “Do we want to feel that way at all times?”

To curb potential harms, the group called for mandatory legislative approval of smart surveillance systems and transparency rules so the public can understand how they’re used. The ACLU, which has also recently called for a moratorium on federal use of face recognition technology until Congress can determine how it should be used, also said the technology shouldn’t be used for “general public suspicion generation or the mass collection of personally identifiable data.”

The civil liberties group may find allies in Congress: In recent House hearings on facial recognition, members from both major parties expressed alarm about government use of the technology.

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