Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
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Big Brother Is Watching You (And Trying to Read Your Mind)

Chinese researchers now claim to have developed technology that can read our minds

One of the most popular story lines in the widely acclaimed television show The Good Wife (2009–2016) is when National Security Agency (NSA) techies entertain themselves by eavesdropping on the heroine’s personal life. It clearly resonated with viewers and reinforced the fears of many that the NSA might be listening to their conversations.

Indeed, they might be. In 2013 James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, was asked by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden about whether NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper answered, under oath, “No sir, not wittingly.” Clapper had been informed the day before that he would be asked this question and he was offered an opportunity the day after to amend his answer — Clapper declined.

Edward Snowden was a computer intelligence consultant working for NSA when he saw Clapper’s testimony. Snowden knew that NSA was in fact using Facebook, Google, and Microsoft servers to track online activity and forcing U.S. telecommunications companies to give NSA information on virtually every U.S. phone call and text message.

Three days later, Snowden flew to Hong Kong and gave copies of thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists who then reported the government snooping in the Washington Post, The Guardian, and other publications. The U.S. government charged Snowden with espionage and conspiracy, just as it had done when Daniel Ellsberg gave the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers photocopies of the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers, a top-secret government report documenting how the government had systematically lied to its citizens about the origins and conduct of the Vietnam War.

The federal government charged Ellsberg with espionage, theft, and conspiracy and obtained a federal court injunction ordering the New York Times to cease publication of the Pentagon Papers. The charges against Ellsberg were eventually dismissed because of government misconduct and the U.S. Supreme Court squashed the press injunction. In a particularly passionate opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote that,

[T]he injunction against The New York Times should have been vacated without oral argument when the cases were first presented… [E]very moment’s continuance of the injunctions… amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment… The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.

Freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment because of the belief that a nation’s citizens should know what their government is doing for them and to them, and because of the hope that governments will serve their citizens better if they know that they are being held accountable.

NSA’s bulk data collection program has reportedly ended, though you never know — and that’s the point. If people believe that the government may be monitoring every word they say or write, they will self-censor and freedom of speech will effectively be silenced.

It was once hoped that technology would bolster freedom of the press by enabling whistleblowers to reach a wide audience and fostering meaningful political discussions. Unfortunately, technology also has the power to allow repressive governments to spy on their citizens and suppress dissent more effectively. Too often, technology is being used to serve the governors, not the governed.

China as Exhibit #1 in total surveillance

The government monitors virtually everything its citizens do on the internet and on their phones and uses this information to calculate “social credit” scores that reward obedient citizens with discounts and privileges and punish those who are perceived to be untrustworthy by restricting what they can buy, where they can live, and where they can travel.

I recently wrote about two Chinese researchers who claim to have developed an AI algorithm that can scan facial photos and predict with 89.5 percent accuracy whether a person is a criminal. In the illustrative photos provided by the researchers, the criminals and non-criminals do look different. The criminals are not smiling, not wearing business suits, and have rougher skin.

Three Criminals
Three Noncriminals

Chinese scientists have now reported that they have developed “mind-reading” AI that uses facial expressions and brain waves to measure a person’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. They boasted that the software could be used to “further solidify their determination to be grateful to the party, listen to the party and follow the party.”

These algorithms are almost certainly deeply flawed. The evidence is overwhelming that facial expressions do not provide reliable evidence about what people are thinking or feeling.

George Orwell’s 1984 slogan “Big Brother is Watching You” is a few decades behind schedule — but frighteningly close to being realized:

The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely… The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.

Instead of telescreens, we now have approximately one billion closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) and billions of computers and smartphones. In the past, totalitarian governments might send agents to follow suspicious people, but they couldn’t tell what people were thinking and there were not enough agents to follow everyone. With technology, totalitarian governments can hope for 24/7 surveillance of what every person is doing and thinking.

Even if the AI algorithms are unreliable, they will surely stifle people’s thoughts and behavior. Orwell understood that it hardly matters whether you are actually being monitored. The mere threat is enough to control you:

There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork… The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself… Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence…

Purported face-reading and mind-reading algorithms can also be abused. They will surely be used to falsely imprison political enemies. They will surely be used to blackmail people for real or imagined misdeeds.

Liberal democracy — characterized by precious ideals including elected governments, the rule of law, private property, equal protection, the right to privacy, and freedom of speech — is relatively young and fragile. It is not perfect but it is worth protecting and nourishing.

You may also wish to read: China is quite serious about total surveillance of every citizen. Local governments are buying enough surveillance equipment to constantly watch 1.6 billion people, documents show. China’s leader Xi Jinping is a techno-optimist who believes that data is power, and that China will achieve AI supremacy by 2030. Whatever it takes, it seems. (Heather Zeiger)

Gary N. Smith

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets statistical reasoning, and artificial intelligence, often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data have been widely cited. He is the author of dozens of research articles and 16 books, most recently, The Power of Modern Value Investing: Beyond Indexing, Algos, and Alpha, co-authored with Margaret Smith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023).

Big Brother Is Watching You (And Trying to Read Your Mind)