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Police Seize on COVID Tech to Expand Global Surveillance
In the pandemic’s bewildering early days, millions worldwide believed government officials who said they needed confidential data for new tech tools that could help stop coronavirus’ spread. In return, governments got a firehose of individuals’ private health details, photographs that captured their facial measurements and their home addresses.
Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, The Associated Press has found that authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalized communities and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools.
In some cases, data was shared with spy agencies. The issue has taken on fresh urgency almost three years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID policies recently ignited the sharpest public rebuke of the country’s authoritarian leadership since the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
For more than a year, AP journalists interviewed sources and pored over thousands of documents to trace how technologies marketed to “flatten the curve” were put to other uses. Just as the balance between privacy and national security shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 has given officials justification to embed tracking tools in society that have lasted long after lockdowns.
Congress Moves to Ban TikTok From U.S. Government Devices
TikTok would be banned from most U.S. government devices under a government spending bill Congress unveiled early Tuesday, the latest push by American lawmakers against the Chinese-owned social media app.
The $1.7 trillion package includes requirements for the Biden administration to prohibit most uses of TikTok or any other app created by its owner, ByteDance Ltd. The requirements would apply to the executive branch — with exemptions for national security, law enforcement and research purposes — and don’t appear to cover Congress, where a handful of lawmakers maintain TikTok accounts.
TikTok is consumed by two-thirds of American teens and has become the second-most popular domain in the world. But there’s long been a bipartisan concern in Washington that Beijing would use legal and regulatory power to seize American user data or try to push pro-China narratives or misinformation.
Actor Tim Robbins Expresses Regret for His Support of COVID Authoritarianism
With multiple peer-reviewed studies showing the potential danger from autoimmune side effects associated with COVID mRNA vaccines (the more doses the higher the risk), along with numerous studies debunking the notion that lockdowns, mandates and masks are effective at stopping the spread of the virus, more and more public figures are beginning to speak out about their initial support of the authoritarian measures.
Actor Tim Robbins recently expressed his regret on Russell Brand’s podcast for blindly following government mandates and he admonished tyrannical attitudes that led lockdown supporters to call for the deaths of their political opponents. While hindsight is indeed 20/20, it should be noted that there were millions of people in the U.S. alone that saw the COVID hype for what it was and tried to warn others.
The fear-mongering by the government and mainstream media in the face of the COVID pandemic was effective in terrorizing at least half the American populace into compliance during the first year of the event. Many alternative media analysts and many doctors and virologists came out against the mandates early on, warning that the median Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of COVID was tiny (0.23% officially) and that the lockdowns were about control rather than public safety.
These people were demonized by the corporate media and threatened with punishment by the government. They faced censorship, potential joblessness and being denied access to healthcare. In some cases they were even labeled “terrorists” for refusing to comply.
Big Tech Bills Left Out of Sweeping Government Spending Bill
Bipartisan bills targeting the nation’s largest tech firms failed to make it into the $1.7 trillion government spending bill, squelching what supporters said was the best effort to pass the bills before House Republicans take control in the new year.
Supporters of efforts to revamp antitrust laws, as well as update kids’ online safety regulations, hoped to add such measures to the omnibus funding bill in a last-ditch effort to pass them this year, but a swath of tech bills were left out, according to text released early Tuesday.
Conscious Machines May Never Be Possible
In June 2022, a Google engineer named Blake Lemoine became convinced that the AI program he’d been working on — LaMDA — had developed not only intelligence but also consciousness. LaMDA is an example of a “large language model” that can engage in surprisingly fluent text-based conversations.
The AI community was largely united in dismissing Lemoine’s beliefs. LaMDA, the consensus held, doesn’t feel anything, understand anything, have any conscious thoughts or any subjective experiences whatsoever. Programs like LaMDA are extremely impressive pattern-recognition systems, which, when trained on vast swathes of the internet, are able to predict what sequences of words might serve as appropriate responses to any given prompt. They do this very well, and they will keep improving. However, they are no more conscious than a pocket calculator.
The next LaMDA might not give itself away so easily. As the algorithms improve and are trained on ever deeper oceans of data, it may not be long before new generations of language models are able to persuade many people that a real artificial mind is at work. Would this be the moment to acknowledge machine consciousness?
Conscious machines are not coming in 2023. Indeed, they might not be possible at all. However, what the future may hold in store are machines that give the convincing impression of being conscious, even if we have no good reason to believe they actually are conscious. They will be like the Müller-Lyer optical illusion: Even when we know two lines are the same length, we cannot help seeing them as different.
Facial Recognition Wielded in India to Enforce COVID Policy
After a pair of Islamist bombings rocked the south-central Indian city of Hyderabad in 2013, officials rushed to install 5,000 CCTV cameras to bolster security. Now there are nearly 700,000 in and around the metropolis.
The most striking symbol of the city’s rise as a surveillance hotspot is the gleaming new Command and Control Center in the posh Banjara Hills neighborhood. The 20-story tower replaces a campus where swarms of officers already had access to 24-hour, real-time CCTV and cell phone tower data that geolocates reported crimes. The technology triggers any available camera in the area, pops up a mugshot database of criminals and can pair images with facial recognition software to scan CCTV footage for known criminals in the vicinity.
Police Commissioner C.V. Anand said the new command center, inaugurated in August, encourages using technologies across government departments, not just police. It cost $75 million, according to Mahender Reddy, director general of the Telangana State Police.
Facial recognition and artificial intelligence have exploded in India in recent years, becoming key law enforcement tools for monitoring big gatherings. Police aren’t just using technology to solve murders or catch armed robbers. Hyderabad was among the first local police forces in India to use a mobile application to dole out traffic fines and take pictures of people flaunting mask mandates.
EU Funds Test of Biometric Payments From Digital Wallets
The EU Commission will provide funds to a consortium whose job is to launch a payments pilot for the bloc’s digital ID wallet.
The NOBID (Nordic-Baltic eID Project) has been chosen to head a multi-national consortium comprising a number of companies such as Thales and iProov, who are expected to start the pilot focusing on payments — one of four EU digital identity pilots — in March 2023.
NOBID consists of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden, while, as previously announced, six states will make up the consortium — Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, and Norway.
They have been entrusted by the Commission to “pilot and shape” the future of digital payments and identity for the EU’s 27 member countries. The funding will come from the EU Commission’s DIGITAL Europa Program.
EU Accepts Amazon Commitments in Antitrust Agreement Affecting Data and Sellers
The European Union has struck a deal with Amazon that will resolve multiple antitrust investigations into the company and impose binding restrictions on the e-commerce giant’s business, in another major step by EU officials to rein in Big Tech.
The agreement includes several multi-year concessions offered by Amazon, including a commitment not to use third-party sellers’ data to benefit Amazon’s own marketplace listings, a practice that policymakers around the world have claimed is anti-competitive.
Violations of the commitments could lead to stiff fines against Amazon totaling as much as 10% of its annual global revenue, according to the European Commission.
Beijing Human Rights Activist Immobilized by COVID App
Wang Yu, hailed by the U.S. as an International Woman of Courage, has already been arrested, imprisoned and harassed by the Chinese Communist Party for her work as a human rights lawyer representing activists, Uyghur scholars and Falun Gong practitioners. This year, her movements within her home country also have been restricted by a color-coded app on her phone that’s supposed to protect people from COVID-19.
The health codes have become ubiquitous in China as the country has struggled to contain the novel coronavirus, pushing the public to a breaking point that erupted in protests late last month. The government announced last week it would discontinue the national health code, but cities and provinces have their own versions, which have been more dominant. In Beijing last week, restaurants, offices, hotels and gyms were still requiring local codes to enter.
Even after lockdowns end, some dissidents and activists predict the health codes will remain in place in some form.
Wang’s experience shows that the codes can become another tool of social control in China. “To some extent, it’s become an electronic handcuff,” said Wang Quanzhang, another human rights lawyer who is not related to Wang Yu. He said he and another passenger ran into similar travel issues in January while flying from Wuhan to Beijing. Wang Quanzhang said he eventually resolved the issue after calling a local Wuhan government hotline, complaining to airport staff and posting on Weibo.