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Is Canada driving ‘surveillance capitalism’?

Canadian Politics

The use of facial recognition is problematic for several reasons, including its infringement on privacy and civil rights. EFF Photos/Flickr.

Unethical industries run much of Canada’s economy. From the extractive sector’s egregious disregard for both environment and human rights, to the manufacturing of weapons systems and components used for the war in Yemen, Canada has been profiteering from destruction and conflict.

In more recent years, a new sector has been gaining ground in the Canadian economy. The number of tech start-ups and research laboratories working on the development of artificial intelligence is growing at an impressive rate.

These shiny, new AI campuses are cropping up all over Canada, most notably in Montreal, to the delight of the federal and provincial governments who are aiming to brand Canada as a leader in the development of this new technology.

In Montreal’s gentrified Mile-Ex neighbourhood, several new AI centres now dominate the urban landscape. Notable among them is the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (Mila) research centre, chaired by Yoshua Bengio, one of the industry’s most prominent researchers.

However, despite billing itself as a publicly funded educational institute, Mila’s ties to corporate interests are clear. In 2016, Bengio was among the few Canadians invited to the annual Bildeberg Conference in Germany; a secretive meeting attended by the world’s most powerful figures, including top politicians, CEOs and former intelligence agency directors. Within Mila, several faculty members are directly affiliated to tech giants Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

AI is generally presented as a practical and exciting innovation of industrious technological enterprise. The top five global technology companies, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft have all invested in AI and have each absorbed a series of start-up companies, several of which are headquartered in Montreal and Toronto.

As “innovation’’ is so enthusiastically praised by some of the world’s most powerful corporations as they pursue their own interests and profits at the expense of collective well-being, we can’t help but remain skeptical of its supposed promise.

AI is not just a harmless technological fad. This new technology is being used to fuel unethical capitalism and discourage dissent. Allowing it to be developed unquestioningly within Canada is ethically problematic.

The tech panopticon

In the 18th century, the English liberal theorist Jeremy Bentham developed an effective prison design that would allow very few people to simultaneously watch many prisoners. Bentham’s panopticon was the logical culmination of a liberal ideology that sought to deprive those most marginalized by capitalism of their freedom.

We might draw a comparison to what is occurring under “surveillance capitalism” – a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, to describe the unique conditions of the commodification and collection of data under late-stage, technological capitalism. The ubiquitous and consensual transfer of our daily lives and interactions to the digital realm has rendered physical structures unnecessary. Not only are we constantly under surveillance, but most of our digital lives are automatically being logged and used to create detailed personal profiles of all individuals through AI technology.

We are told that this invasive data collection serves only to identify us as consumers, allowing companies to advertise more efficiently. These assurances serve to mask the ways in which AI technology is already being used to undermine fundamental rights and freedoms.

A growing threat to civil and human rights

In Canada, the use of AI is dreadfully unregulated. This is troubling, especially as the use of AI programs such as facial recognition are already being deployed by law enforcement in public spaces. Calgary and Toronto have admitted they use facial recognition technology, while other cities like Montreal and Halifax refuse to either confirm or deny it. Many of us may therefore be unknowingly identified by police services when we are out in public. Moreover, it is yet unknown what happens to the data generated by these programs.

The use of facial recognition is problematic for several reasons, including its infringement on privacy and civil rights. Indeed, in a well functioning democracy, citizens should have a right to occupy public spaces without being watched.

The technology is also frequently inaccurate and biased. According to several studies conducted in the U.S. and the U.K., facial recognition technology often fails to tell the difference between individual women and people of colour. In an experiment conducted in Wales, thousands of people were mistakenly identified as criminals by law enforcement. It is very worrying to imagine technology with a built-in bias being deployed by an already biased institution. As a result of these concerns, the European Union is considering a five-year ban on the use of facial recognition technology.

In Canada, AI is also being used by immigration officials in their selection process. Findings published by researchers at the University of Toronto have identified the use of these automated and biased programs as a serious concern for human rights, stating that “These systems will have life-and-death ramifications for ordinary people, many of whom are fleeing for their lives’’. Their research also highlights concerns related to transparency and corporate accountability.

AI is further being deployed by companies like Facebook and Twitter to monitor and censor what is deemed to be inappropriate content. However, there is little to no information about the algorithms used to make these determinations. As such, our ability to speak and communicate effectively and freely on these platforms is tightly and secretly controlled by their owners. The ensuing lack of transparency combined with the grotesque power held by these private corporate interests is profoundly disturbing. We might soon find that the only acceptable speech on the internet is that which aligns with the worldview of these tech leviathans.

Crushing social movements

It has been known for several years now that the RCMP and CSIS monitors and collects data on environmental activists, in support of oil and gas companies. In the era of mass surveillance, it is easy to imagine that the increased spying powers derived through AI technology will lead to stronger policing against social movements.

The ability to freely congregate in public is essential to democratic freedom of expression, but those who assemble to protest are almost always targets of harassment and surveillance by law enforcement. During the 2012 student strikes in Quebec, police routinely filmed protesters faces without their consent. These intrusive and illegal tactics would be massively facilitated by the introduction of AI facial recognition technology. Combined with automated data collection, AI makes it easier to target those who express dissent. All of this significantly undermines the ability to politically organize effectively.

A dubious use of public funds

The ethical problems that surround the use of AI for the violation of human rights should warrant close public scrutiny. However, far from pushing for regulation on the development of AI, many layers of government are actively subsidizing the industry.

Since 2016, more than $2 billion in public funds have been spent by federal and provincial governments on private companies conducting AI research and development. In 2017, the Federal government announced its Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, financed with $125 million of public funds to subsidize AI research. Without questioning the profits of the massive tech companies receiving these funds, the Canadian government is funding research at the expenses of Canadian civil and human rights.

AI and the future of democracy

Though Canada adopted a Digital Charter in 2019, the document currently limits itself to a few general principles that have not been translated into effective action. Kean Birch remarked in the Globe and Mail that “what we are left with when it comes to the Digital Charter is really just words, not much else – no regulation, no legislation, no new rights’’.

A vague theoretical acknowledgement of the risks of AI is dangerously insufficient. It is ludicrous to imagine that the likes of Google and Amazon are capable of self-regulation and ethical accountability, considering their past actions. It’s farcical to allow a company that removed “don’t be evil’’ from its corporate philosophy to unleash this kind of power and control on society.

Moreover, the risks of allowing this industry to consolidate intimate ties with state institutions are immense and should be of urgent concern to all those who value a free and democratic society. We need to recognize that these Canadian AI research campuses are not working in the interest of Canadian “innovation”, but in the service of surveillance capitalism.

Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethELeier.


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