The War of AIs – CIA vs the World

Artificial Intelligence is as “good” as the purpose behind it, and in case you weren’t aware of this, spy agencies across the world have various AI projects underway.

What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, CIA’s Deputy Director for technology development Dawn Meyerriecks, spoke at an event in Florida where she revealed the CIA has about 140 new AI projects. Furthermore, one of these was created to help CIA agents avoid other countries’ AIs.

Let’s break this down, first. So, other countries have AIs that combine CCTV and other street cams with facial recognition, and they use this technology to track down CIA operatives. Since being a spy is and has always been about secrets and staying under the radar, that’s a big problem. So, the CIA built its own AI that takes public data and figures out exactly where these CCTV cameras are located, creating a sort of map CIA agents can follow to stay under the radar. Singapore is one of the places where operatives are followed in this way, but Meyerriecks mentioned 30 countries had such capabilities.

That’s one single example of what the CIA is doing, but you can be sure they’re also deploying the same facial recognition via CCTV cameras technology too. While their projects are obviously not in the public eye the same way Google’s are, for instance, the CIA has been fiddling with AI since the 80s, so you can be sure they have plenty of toys at their disposal.

One memo from 1984 mentions AI research and development in multiple areas, such as “expert systems, natural language processing, intelligent database interfaces, image understanding, signals interpretation, geographic and spatial data management, and intelligent workstation environments.” That pretty much covers anything like facial recognition, geo-tracking, image recognition, transcripts of recorded conversations, and so on.

It would be no surprise if soon the CIA slapped a notice in its windows saying “We’re no longer hiring, AI has taken over all agent jobs.” We’re exaggerating, of course, as there’ll always be room for humans in this field, but there’s no denying how much AIs can be of help both in acquiring information, understanding the collecting data, and helping operatives in the field.

The problem for regular citizens is that their own information is quite likely collected in this battle of spies. All these 30 nations the CIA director mentioned aren’t going to just scan the streets when they think some foreign agent is lurking around – they’re going to do it 24/7, stealing some of your privacy from you. Yes, CCTV cameras have been around for a while, but they’re generally used as proof something happened, like an accident, or a robbery, or some other type of incident; no one expects someone to be scanning the footage around the clock. And yet, that’s exactly what AIs do.

The psychology of mass surveillance

Being watched around the clock can lead people to change their behaviors, which, in turn, has deep effects on their personalities. Following the Snowden revelations about NSA’s mass surveillance practices, a survey by Amnesty International showed that 42% reported that the news affected the way they use the Internet. While this particular Amnesty International survey didn’t go into details of how people actually change the way they use the Internet, but another did.

Back in 2013, following the NSA scandal outbreak, Jon Penney from the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, discovered that Wikipedia searches for certain terms declined considerably. What terms, you wonder? The kind that can get you on a watchlist: Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, dirty bomb, jihad, chemical weapon, and more on the same line.This means that people likely started suppressing even their curiosity of researching things on Wikipedia.

“This kind of creeping surveillance showing up everywhere has the potential to cause some psychological issues as the ability to put up healthy boundaries and decide what to share disappear,” said Jen Golbeck, associate professor of information studies at the University of Maryland.

If this is what happens when the surveillance happens online, what do you think happens when the surveillance happens on the streets, in our “real” lives? Researchers from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology ran a study of their own and found that constant surveillance doesn’t produce only stress, but it can push people to wear more clothes when at home, to censor their interactions and more. Called the Helsinki Syndrome, the findings show that people eventually become so accustomed to the new reality that they soon begin to ignore the cameras. Of course, the subjects of the study chose to be a part of it and knew what they were getting into, but it’s still telling – do we want to become disensitized to mass surveillance?

On the other hand, the Hawthorne Effect, which was coined nearly a century ago, shows that employees are more productive when they know they are being watched. Similarly, crime rates in areas where cameras as present have reduced considerably.

Public surveillance can make it so people are more likely to abide the law, but in the private sphere such surveillance can be counterproductive, demotivating people. Those who cannot let go of the thought that they are constantly observed start changing their behavior to such an extent that it can affect their relationships, as well as their own well-being and personal development due to never feeling like they can relax completely. In turn, the stress levels they experience are constantly high, something that’s not healthy for anyone.

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