How Post-9/11 Surveillance Reshaped Modern-Day America

Following the events of September 11, 2001, legal barriers against surveillance were immediately cast aside; legal justifications for the government to get sensitive information from any American grew. Like many, the influence of surveillance technology on modern-day America has provided a gateway of opportunities as well as added safety. Yet, the debate continues whether or not this is an invasion of an individual’s right to privacy or a governmental right. The United States’ growing use of invasive and controlling surveillance technologies is turning it into a dystopian nightmare.

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The Lasting Effects of 9/11

The most significant shift in US surveillance occurred in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “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. There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment” (Orwell 5). In the novel 1984, Orwell creates a dystopian society controlled by an overpowering entity known as “The Party ‘’ and symbol representing that dictatorship, referred to as Big Brother. “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,”one of the most popular as well as most frightening political slogans used during that time, stems from this recurring idea of power and propaganda. The notorious telescreen, a two-way screen that can see an individual as they see it, is one of the most renowned examples of technology used by the Party. The screen remains on at all times not so that the citizens can be informed of what is being projected to them, but rather so that Party members are able to monitor them. Though, it may seem unlikely that the elites are able to track as well as observe every single human at any given moment, the possibility still remains. Meaning, that the mere existence of the telescreen ensures that no one will dare to rebel against the party. Every citizen must act according to the party’s rules, otherwise a simple nod, a keen look, or just a simple tap of the foot can get them into an incredibly hostile situation. Everything that the citizens experience is limited. The Party has full authority as well as dominance over the humans when they are incapable of viewing the truth of reality. “After 9/11, Congress rushed to pass the Patriot Act, ushering in a new era of mass surveillance. Over the next decade, the surveillance state expanded dramatically, often in secret. The Bush administration conducted warrantless mass surveillance programs in violation of the Constitution and our laws, and the Obama administration allowed many of these spying programs to continue and grow”(Toomey 3). Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies moved their focus from investigating criminal suspects to preventing terrorist strikes. They were keen to increase their technological utilization and started off with passing the USA PATRIOT Act. This dramatically increased the government’s authority to pry into people’s private lives with little to no authorization. This meant that phone conversations, emails, chats, and online browsing could all be monitored. It became legal for the government to get sensitive information from an American, regardless of whether or not the individual was actually suspected of wrongdoing. This is much like the telescreen in Orwell’s 1984. The Party is able to pry and monitor their civilians’ life through what is called a telescreen, a two-way television screen that allows the government to see into what the people are doing at any given time, no matter their rank in society. Even though Orwell’s 1984 dystopia is put to the extreme of totalitarian regime, it doesn’t eliminate how both of these, almost identical, contribute to the growing dystopia America is today.

The Revelations of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, a former computer systems contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), leaked highly classified information as well as thousands of secret NSA documents to the public. “People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word”(Orwell 14). Still happening today, “…the U.S. government was tapping into the servers of nine Internet companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google, to spy on people’s audio and video chats… as part of a surveillance program called Prism. In the same month, Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence. Facing up to 30 years in prison, Snowden left the country, originally traveling to Hong Kong and then to Russia, to avoid being extradited to the U.S.”(Onion 3). In Orwell’s 1984, the Party dominates practically every aspect of society. What is being seen, heard, and talked about is all consistently tracked to make sure no one rebels and falls out of line. Now, if one were to revolt and choose to present an opposing idea to the government, the act of vaporization would take place. Meaning, the governmental figure has full authorization to execute those who provoke it. Now, in the real world the cost of rebelling is not as extreme, but the cautionary line is still present. Edward Snowden, a former computer systems contractor for the NSA, revealed thousands of secret documents about the NSA’s PRISM program. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congressed passed PRISM, a program that gave the government full authority to every piece of sensitive information surrounding an American. Snowden going public with the reports of the NSA’s undercover operations allowed for a widespread of people to get a small glimpse of what was going on in their very devices. The U.S. The Justice Department charged Snowden with theft of government property and two violations of the Espionage Act which landed him a 30 year prison sentence. Snowden fled the nation, first to Hong Kong, then to Russia, to avoid being extradited to the United States. This is very similar to “vaporization” in Orwell’s 1984. Though it is not taken to the very extreme, Snowden published documents that exposed the government’s surveillance tactics and mass data collection that is happening in one’s very device. In a fear of it becoming mainstream, the government deemed this to be an opposing idea, causing them to sentence Snowden to a thirty year sentence and run him out of the nation. For the Party to maintain power, the citizens of the society of 1984 must be manipulated into submission, meaning the use of vaporization and the telescreen are just two among a plethora of control mechanisms. With America’s developing surveillance programs that contribute to data tracking and collection, Snowden was able to give a glimpse into what is happening behind one’s screen. Though Orwell’s 1984 is taken to the extreme, it doesn’t eliminate how both of these cases, vastly similar, could be the future of America as one may know it.

Surveillance in America’s Modernized Dystopian Society

Given the tremendous rise and impact of technology, in particular, it is easy to see how American civilization is reaching a modern-day dystopia.“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right”(Orwell 103). This introduces how accustomed the civilization of 1984 has become since the ruling of the party. The Party’s efforts to have regulation over every aspect of the citizens’ lives comes from a desire to keep them oblivious to the truth of their surroundings. They need to live in oblivion because it supports the Party’s ability to lie to the citizens. The Party is then able to then have full dominance over society and its decisions. The goals set afoot reflect a craving for an unrestrained command over their people, by lying to them and controlling every aspect of their lives. Therefore, the Party prohibits any means of expression or communication that will take apart their immense authority over the citizens.

“When you zoom out, it’s easy to see that American society is approaching a modern-day dystopia as the once sci-fi-worthy stories of environmental destruction, technological control, and loss of human rights and freedoms creep to fruition. The eerie loss of individuality is looming right before your screen every time you passively press ‘accept’ on a new privacy policy and turn a blind eye to why your data is being collected. While it’s easy to ignore the data tracking that has become so commonplace”(Coonrod 2). “A majority of Americans believe their online and offline activities are being tracked and monitored by companies and the government with some regularity. Data-driven products and services are often marketed with the potential to save users time and money or even lead to better health and well-being. Still, large shares of U.S. adults are not convinced they benefit from this system of widespread data gathering. Some 81% of the public say that the potential risks they face because of data collection by companies outweigh the benefits…”(Auxier 1). When propaganda is intentionally spread to citizens of a society, they grow blind to the truth and become accustomed to an inhuman world. Ruling parties flourish when they’re oppressing the general public to a callous world ,through manipulation and deception. What is seen, what is said, and what is being heard is all generated to brainwash an individual’s mind into conforming to “normal” society. Though this is seen all throughout Orwell’s 1984 with its various forms of propaganda, it is particularly shown today in modernized American society. When a user accepts or allows a new privacy policy on an app, data tracking is enabled on their device. Government forces are continually listening to and obtaining secret information about what is said, heard, and discussed, indicating that nearly everything is at danger. Many new initiatives, foundations, online browsers, and advocacy groups are stepping forward to develop tools and technologies to reduce the quantity of personal data stolen. However, most of the time, whether individuals are aware of it or not, these devices are secretly gathering data on them. These data applications continually tailor and transmit information to conform to the standards of the individual’s point of view, and often try to brainwash them with the constant feed of data. Taken into consideration, societies tend to manipulate as well as deceive their people which, infact, is seen all throughout Orwell’s 1984 dystopian novel. Though this is taken to the utmost extent, if this continues, what is known to be America today will become a dystopia.

The expanding use of intrusive and controlling monitoring technology in the United States is turning the country into a growing dystopia. Orwell’s novel, 1984, represents how the Party grows stronger when citizens are deceived into ignorance, which is also relevant to actions taken by the U.S government following the events of 9/11. The Party manipulates its citizens into being unaware of the truth of their environment. This is done to ensure that the Party holds unlimited control over them. These tactics are also employed by the United States government by fulfilling mass surveillance on all of their citizens. Edward Snowen came forth about these lies, misconceptions, and hypocrisy that the NSA conducted when they enacted the Patriot Act and PRISM program on their citizens. Meaning that it became legal for the government to get sensitive information from any American, regardless of whether or not the individual was actually suspected of wrongdoing. Comparably, the Party’s use of advanced technology, like the telescreen and vaporization techniques, are just a few extreme examples contributing to America’s dystopian future. Oppressive governing parties will silence as well as deceive their citizens by using advanced technology inorder to gain full dominance over their lives, actions, and opinions.

How Facial Recognition Affects People of Different Gender Identities

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Artificial intelligence-powered surveillance technology has recently attracted controversy for its role in furthering discrimination against people of color and other marginalized groups.

This discrimination is seen in the many false arrests that have occurred due to the misidentification of AI and software bias. Numerous examples have come to light with police using facial recognition software and incorrectly identifying and arresting “suspects”. Nijeer Parks, and African American man, was incorrectly matched to footage of a suspect and detained for several days, despite compelling evidence proving he had no connection to the crime that occurred.

AI’s flaws also affect the LGBTQ+ community. Many facial recognition software systems are programmed to sort individuals by gender. Non-binary, agender, and gender non-conforming individuals are often sorted into these categories incorrectly, which entirely ignores their gender identities. Transgender individuals are often misgendered, or their gender identity is entirely ignored.

Studies at CU Boulder and MIT found that “facial analysis services performed consistently worse on transgender individuals, and were universally unable to classify non-binary genders.” The Gender Shades Project found that the software being used at Microsoft, Face++, and IBM misidentified many demographics. Microsoft’s facial recognition software misgenders 93.6% of those of darker skin complexions. At Face++ female subjects are misgendered 95.9% according to their error analysis.

Being misidentified by the system can have terrible ramifications for many people of varying gender identities if this type of facial recognition software continues to be used by law enforcement.

It’s important to note how the development of software systems influence their bias and inaccuracy. Congressional inquiries into the accuracy of facial recognition across a number of demographics, as well as a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), have found that the technology is highly inaccurate when identifying non-white, female, or non-cisgender people. It is most effective on white, cisgender men. This reflects the fact that 80% of software engineers are men, and 86% of software engineers are Asian or white.

We’re seeing the growing problems that stem from the lack of diversity in careers that heavily impact our lives. Software bias is a reflection of the bias of those who write the code. By continuing the use of software with documented bias, we perpetuate an endless loop of marginalization and discrimination. The only solution is increasing diversity in fields that affect our everyday life, like software engineering.

Efforts to ban and regulate facial recognition usage, particularly by law enforcement, have increased in the recent past.

On a federal level, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) has proposed a bill known as the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020. This bill would impose restrictions on federal and state agencies who wish to use this technology, and render information obtained by law enforcement through facial recognition inadmissible in court.

Many cities have restricted and regulated law enforcement’s use of facial recognition. These cities, including Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, and many more, have taken action against the software. It is imperative that more cities and the federal government follow in their path and prevent facial recognition technology from being used by law enforcement in the future.

Facial Recognition Can Now Identify People Wearing Masks

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Japanese company NEC developed a facial recognition system that can identify people wearing face masks with near 100% accuracy.

It focuses on parts of the face that are not covered, such as the eyes, to verify someone’s identity. Verification takes less than one second and has an accuracy rate of over 99.9%, a stark improvement from facial recognition algorithms’ prior identification rate of 20–50% of images of people wearing face masks.

NEC worked to hone this technology for some time as wearing masks is common practice in Japan already, but it accelerated development to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic. “Needs grew even more due to the coronavirus situation as the state of emergency [last year] was continuing for a long time, and so we’ve now introduced this technology to the market,” Shinya Takashima, Assistant Manager of NEC’s digital platform division, told Reuters.

The company is targeting 100 billion yen ($970 million) in sales in 2021 for its biometrics, facial recognition, and video analysis systems. Lufthansa and Swiss International airlines already employ this technology since its sale in October, and the NEC is trialing facial recognition for automated payments at a convenience shop in its Tokyo company headquarters.

London’s Metropolitan Police Service, ‘The Met Police,’ used the NeoFace Live Facial Recognition system to compare faces in crowds with those on a government watchlist to “prevent crime, to protect vulnerable members of the community or to support the safety strategy.” However, they were met with intense backlash for the lack of records kept on face matches made at King Cross and froze further use of the technology. England and Wales hope to increase transparency about the use of facial recognition systems and image sharing and to revise prior guidelines on the use of surveillance cameras.

The NEC aims to employ live facial recognition technology to promote social distancing, minimizing the need to touch surfaces or carry around forms of identification like security cards, and thus, combat the spread of COVID-19. “Touchless verification has become extremely important due to the impact of the coronavirus,” Shinya Takashima said. “Going forward we hope to contribute to safety and peace of mind by strengthening [efforts] in that area.”

NEC’s NeoFace Live Facial Recognition system can identify people in real-time with close to 100% accuracy, and it effectively eliminates the obstacle of facial coverings like masks. Although this can help promote social distancing and mitigate the spread of disease through hands-free payments and identification, such a powerful tool, if left unregulated, could pose a great threat to human rights.

AI can discriminate based on gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic level, disability status, etc. Surveillance and facial recognition technologies disproportionately harm people of color, allow private information to be collected by third parties without a person’s explicit consent, and are be weaponized to intentionally target certain groups like Uyghur Muslims in China. With such a powerful facial recognition system, peaceful protesters can no longer hide their identities from police with face coverings, roadblocks to lethal autonomous weaponry are eliminated, and an individual’s privacy is profoundly violated.

Image Credit: New York Post

Strict regulations, if not a complete ban on facial recognition systems, need to be implemented to ensure the ethical use of this technology, safeguard people’s rights to privacy, and begin to break the AI-driven cycle of systematic discrimination against minority groups.