AI Weekly: Coronavirus, facial recognition, and the future of privacy

Global cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus surpassed 100,000 today. As President Trump signs into law an $8.3 billion emergency aid package to address the coronavirus, the chief of the World Health Organization said yesterday that this is “a time for pulling out all the stops.”

There are coronavirus cases in countries around the world, but COVID-19 appears to be flat or on the decline in China, where the novel virus first emerged. Earlier this week, VentureBeat took a look at some ways AI is being applied to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus.

AI and big data indeed played a role in China’s response to COVID-19, according to a World Health Organization report compiled by about a dozen outside health professionals and released last month.

The assessment finds that swift action by Chinese authorities to limit travel and quarantine entire cities potentially kept hundreds of thousands of people from being infected. But many also criticized China’s measures as draconian.

It’s unclear to what extent facial recognition played a role in enforcement of public safety and COVID-19 cases in China, but a coauthor of the WHO study told Science that China is making strides on coronavirus through “good old social distancing and quarantining very effectively done because of that on-the-ground machinery at the neighborhood level facilitated by AI and big data.”

China quarantined 50 million people in places like Wuhan and used WeChat and Alipay to track people’s movement and keep infected people from traveling. It also deployed facial recognition, and thermal sensors in drones and helmets.

If quarantines are ineffective or improperly carried out, millions of people could die, according to some estimates, so this is life and death, but we can’t just throw civil liberties out the window.

Surveillance tech deployed

Aside from coronavirus coverage, the other prevailing story this week was a rush of revelations about companies peddling AI-powered surveillance technology to businesses, governments, and law enforcement agencies.

Wolfcom is selling live facial recognition body cameras to police departments, a practice that major body camera company Axon says is premature. Wolfcom has sold cameras to 1,500 law enforcement agencies.

Clearview AI made its facial recognition algorithm with 3 billion images scraped from Facebook, Google, and other parts of the web without permission. Now they’re attempting to acquire mug shots taken in the past 15 years. A data breach last week revealed its client list of more than 2,000 customers, including major businesses and law enforcement agencies.

Senator Ed Markey (D – MA) sent Clearview AI a letter this week questioning the extent of the data breach and the company’s relationships with authoritarian governments with poor track records on human rights, like Saudi Arabia.

Viral surveillance

Can virus quarantine serve as an excuse to increase the surveillance state? How should we be thinking about that as communities argue over whether Clearview AI and live facial recognition could mean the end of privacy?

I asked those questions to Brian Hofer. He’s chair of the privacy commission in Oakland, California and coauthor of legislation in a number of cities to adopt surveillance technology oversight policy and facial recognition bans.

Hofer and I spoke roughly a year ago as the U.S. Congress began to consider more AI regulation legislation and San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to ban facial recognition. Police use of live facial recognition body cameras isn’t something you have to worry about in California, where a three-year moratorium is in place.

Hofer said mass surveillance is often presented as a solution in a crisis, and like with the passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11, he said, people can respond to crises by surrendering freedoms.

“Fear is a powerful motivator, and even if it’s just like a natural disaster, it’s not like 9/11, you still see people willing to make this sort of calculus that if it can save one life and make things a little bit better, that I’ll sacrifice my civil liberties,” Hofer said. “It’s something that really frustrates me, but I think it’s also sort of human nature that in a crisis we’re not the most clear-headed, and if there are sort of nefarious people at the same time pushing an expansion of surveillance, then it finds a receptive audience.”

The coronavirus is changing lives far beyond the spread of a global pandemic.

Productivity apps and teleconferencing software like Zoom are poised to grow in adoption as more people work from home. Chinese communities are experiencing racism. Global economies are bracing for recession, and exactly how the spread of the coronavirus will impact global supply chains, public events, travel, and other industries is still up in the air. In an age where we’re actively discussing whether a company like Clearview will mean the end of privacy, it wouldn’t be surprising if coronavirus is used as an excuse to spread mass surveillance.

This is not intended to be alarmist, but keep an eye on mission creep in this space.

The coronavirus is in over 60 countries today. It may in fact be true that, as an analyst commenting on the WHO-China study said, no other country in the world can respond to the coronavirus the way China just did, but it doesn’t mean they won’t try.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers and AI editor Seth Colaner — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Khari Johnson

Senior AI Staff Writer

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