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As technology evolves and the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning becomes increasingly mainstream, consumers are more concerned than ever before about protecting their privacy. Awareness surrounding how activities are being tracked and how personal information is being accessed and used is growing. The world’s biggest companies are frequently being challenged on the ways that they collect and utilize people’s data.

The growing concern surrounding privacy and data security encompasses technologies both online and offline. While consumers are fine with some forms of tracking, the bigger concern is how it could be used for surveillance. Here are three controversial emerging technologies with privacy-threatening implications that you may not have considered.

Location-tracking technologies on mobile phones

New technologies are capable of tracking and recording your every movement, revealing detailed information about your lifestyle and personal choices that you make. For example, your mobile phone registers its location with cell towers every few minutes whenever it is turned on. Mobile carriers collect this data on their customers, and government officials can easily obtain detailed information about you by accessing your location. The federal government invokes powerful surveillance authorities to collect sensitive data including location, contact lists, call records and contents of text messages and calls.

Facial recognition technologies

Facial recognition technologies analyze images of human faces for the purpose of identifying them. These technologies are often used for general surveillance, and passively collect images without people’s knowledge or consent. State motor vehicle agencies possess high-quality photographs of most citizens, which can be used for facial recognition programs that can serve identification and tracking purposes.

People are becoming aware of the privacy implications associated with facial recognition technology and they are taking a stand. In May, San Francisco     outlawed the use of facial recognition technology by city agencies, and other cities are considering regulating facial recognition technology as it continues to become increasingly controversial.

Just recently, the state of California banned the use of facial recognition in police body cams. This new legislation ensures that body cameras, which were promoted as a tool for officer accountability, cannot be twisted into surveillance systems used to target and oppress marginalized populations. California’s law is impressively more preemptive than reactive, as no law enforcement officers in California were using body cameras with facial recognition software prior to this new rule.

Despite the growing awareness of the dangers of facial recognition, technologies and programs that utilize it are still prevalent. France is currently in the process of creating a nationwide program to create legal digital identities for its citizens using facial recognition. And France is not alone. According to a report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at least 75 out of 176 countries worldwide are actively using AI technologies for surveillance purposes.

Automatic license plate readers

Automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) are an emerging surveillance technology designed to track the movements of every passing driver and record traffic accidents. These readers are often mounted on police cars or objects like road signs, bridges, or traffic lights. They use discrete high-speed cameras to indiscriminately photograph not only license plates, but pedestrians, bicyclists, workers, residents and animals. The video footage collected by these readers is often pooled into regional sharing systems and, as a result, enormous databases of innocent people’s personal information are expanding rapidly. This data can be kept indefinitely with little or no privacy restrictions, and can be sold to and used by anyone who is willing to pay for it. Because these surveillance cameras are small and usually well-hidden, they often go unnoticed, making them especially invasive and threatening.

To make matters worse, this technology is often abused. Data that the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained from the Oakland Police Department shows that police disproportionately deploy ALPR-mounted vehicles in low-income communities and communities of color. In addition to the deliberate abuse of this software, ALPRs are not fool-proof and sometimes misread plates, leading serious consequences. In 2009, San Francisco police pulled over Denise Green, an African-American city worker, handcuffed her at gunpoint and searched both her and her car - all because her vehicle was misidentified as stolen due to a license plate reader error. This horrific incident led to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that technology alone can’t be the basis of such a stop. However, this legislation unfortunately does not apply everywhere, leaving people vulnerable to tragic law enforcement errors.  

How can I protect my privacy?

People should not be forced to choose between technology and privacy. While some aspects of privacy are unfortunately out of individuals’ control, there are various practices and behaviors that people should engage in which will help protect citizens’ privacy both online and offline. They include:

  • Choose strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts
  • NEVER share passwords
  • Set automatic locks on all devices
  • Avoid connecting to unsecured WiFi networks
  • Download apps from trusted sources 
  • Limit personal information given to apps and websites
  • Manage what is shared online
  • Practice robust data security and minimal data collection
  • Encourage education and awareness

By taking measures to protect aspects of our privacy that are within our control and by challenging privacy-threatening programs and initiatives, we can collectively work toward creating a more secure future!

Have a question or a comment about privacy? Please share it with us. We are passionate about this topic and would love to discuss it with you.