ethics

Always watching, always listening. Be careful with your data

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The saying ‘Big Brother is Watching’ has been around a long time and typically gets associated with government organisations. But over the past few years we have a few new Big Brothers appearing. These are in the form of Google and Facebook and a few others.

These companies gather lots and lots. Some companies gather enormous amounts of data. This data will include details of your interactions with the companies through various websites, applications, etc. But some are gathering data in ways that you might not be aware. For example, take this following video. Data is being gathered about what you do and where you go even if you have disconnected your phone.

Did you know this kind of data was being gathered about you?

Just think of what they could be doing with that data, that data you didn’t know they were gathering about you. Companies like these generate huge amounts of income from selling advertisements and the more data they have about individuals the more the can understand what they might be interested. The generate customer profiles and sell expensive advertising based on having these very detailed customer profiles.

But it doesn’t stop there. Recently Google bought Fitbit. Just think about what they can do now. Combining their existing profiles of you as a person with you activities throughout every day, week and month. Just think about how various health and insurance companies would love to have this data. Yes they would and companies like Google would be able to charge these companies even more money for this level of detail on individuals/customers.

But it doesn’t stop there. There have been lots of reports of various apps sharing health and other related data with various companies, without their customers being aware this is happening.

What about Google Assistant? In a recent article by MIT Technology Review title Inside Amazon’s plan for Alexa to run your entire life, they discuss how Alexa can be used to control virtually everything. In this article Alexa’s cheif scientist say “plan is for the voice assistant to move from passive to proactive interactions. Rather than wait for and respond to requests, Alexa will anticipate what the user might want. The idea is to turn Alexa into an omnipresent companion that actively shapes and orchestrates your life. This will require Alexa to get to know you better than ever before.”  When combined with other products this will allow “these new products let Alexa listen to and log data about a dramatically larger portion of your life“.

Just imagine if Google did the same with their Google Assistant!  Big Brother isn’t just Watching, they are also Listening!

There has been some recent report of Google looking to get into Banking by offering checking accounts. The project, code-named Cache, is due to launch in 2020. Google has partnered with Citigroup and a credit union at Stanford University, which will administer the accounts. Users will be able to access their accounts through Google’s digital payment platform, Google Pay.

And there are the reports of Google having access to the health records of over 50 million people. In addition to this, Google has signed a deal with Ascension, the second-largest hospital system in the US, to collect and analyze millions of Americans’ personal health data. Ascension operates in 150 hospitals in 21 states.

What if they also had access to your banking details and spending habits? Google is looking at different options to extend financial products from the google pay into more main stream banking. There has been some recent report of them looking at offering current accounts.

I won’t go discussing their attempts at Ethics and their various (failed) attempts at establishing and Ethics Advisory Board. This has been well documented elsewhere.

Things are getting a bit scary and the saying ‘Big Brother is Watching You’, is very, very true.

In the ever increasing connected world, all of us have a responsibility to know what data companies are gathering on us. We need to decide how comfortable we are with this and if you aren’t then you need to take steps to ensure you protect yourself. Maybe part of this protection requires us to become less connected, stop using some apps, turn off more notification, turn off updates, turn off tracking, etc

While taking each product or offering individually, it may seem ok to us for Google and other companies to offer such services and to analyze our data to provide a better service. But for most people the issues arise when each of these products start to be combined. By doing this they get to have greater access and understanding our our data and our behaviors. What role does (digital) ethics play in all of this? This is something for the company and the employees to decide where things should stop. But when/how do you decide this? when do you/they know things have gone too far? how can you undo some of this work to go back to an acceptable level? what is an acceptable level and how do you define this?

As yo can see there are lots of things to consider and a vital component is the role of (digital) ethics. All organizations who process and analyze data need to have an ethics board and ethics needs to be a core part of every project. To support this everyone needs more training and awareness of ethics and what is acceptable or not.

Examples of Machine Learning with Facial Recognition

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In a previous blog post I gave some examples of how facial images recognition and videos are being used in our daily lives. In this post I want to extend this with some additional examples. There are ethical issues around this and in some of these examples their usage has stopped. What is also interesting is the reaction on various social media channels about this. People don’t like it and and happen that some of these have stopped.

But how widespread is this technology? Based on these known examples, and this list is by no means anywhere near complete, but gives an indication of the degree of it’s deployment and how widespread it is.

Dubai is using facial recognition to measure customer satisfaction at four of the Roads and Transport Authority Customer Happiness Centers. They analyze the faces of their customers and rank their level of happiness. They can use this to generate alerts when the happiness levels falls below certain levels.

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Various department stores are using facial recognition throughout the stores and at checkout. These are being used to delivery personalized adverts to users on either in-store screen or on personalized screens on the shopping trolley. And can be used to verify a person’s age if they are buying alcohol or other products. Tesco’s have previously used face-scanning cameras at tills in petrol stations to target advertisements at customers depending on their age and approximate age.

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Some retail stores are using ML to monitor you, monitor what items you pick up and what you pay for at the checkout, identifying any differences and what steps to take next.

In a slight variation of facial recognition, some stores are using similar technology to monitor stock levels, monitor how people interact with different products (e.g pick up one product and then relate it with a similar product), and optimized location of products. Walmart has been a learner in the are of AI and Machine Learning in the retail section for some time now.

The New York Metropolitan Transport Authority has been using facial capture and recognition at several site across the city. Their proof of concept location was at the Robert F Kennedy Bridge. The company supplying the technology claimed 80% accuracy at predicting the person, through a widescreen while the car was traveling at low speed. These images can then be matched against government databases, such as driver license authorities, police databases and terrorist databases. The problem with this project was that it did not achieve one single positive match (within acceptable parameters) during the initial period of the project.

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There are some reports that similar technology is being use on the New York Subway system in Time Square to help with identifying fare dodgers.

How about using facial recognition at boarding gates for your new flight instead of showing your passport or other official photo id. JetBlue and other airlines are now using this technology. Some airports have been using this for many many years.

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San Francisco City government took steps in May 2019 to ban the use of facial recognition across all city functions. Other cities like Oakland and Sommerville in Massachusetts have implemented similar bans with other cities likely to follow. But it doesn’t ban the use by private companies.

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What about using this technology to automatically monitor and manage staff. Manage staff, as in to decide who should be fired and who should be reallocated elsewhere. It is reported that Amazon is using facial and other recognition systems to monitor staff productivity in their warehouses.

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A point I highlighted in my previous post was how are these systems/applications able to get enough images as training samples for their models. This is considering that most of the able systems/applications say they don’t keep any of the images they capture.

How many of us take pictures and post them on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. By doing this, you are making those images available to these companies to training their machine learning model. To do this they scrap the images for these sites and then have to manually label them with descriptive information. It is a combination of the image and descriptive information that is used by the machine learning algorithms to learn and build a model that suits their needs. See the MIT Technology Review article for more details and example on this topic.

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There are also reports of some mobile phone apps that turn on your mobile phone camera. The apps will detect if the phone is possibly mounted on the dashboard of a car, and then takes pictures of the inside of the car and also pictures of where you are driving. Similar reports exists about many apps and voice activated devices.

So be careful what you post on social media or anywhere else online, and be careful of what apps you have on your mobile phone!

There is a general backlash to the use of this technology, and with more people becoming aware of what is happening, we need to more aware of what when and where this technology is being used.

Examples of using Machine Learning on Video and Photo in Public

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Over the past 18 months or so most of the examples of using machine learning have been on looking at images and identifying objects in them. There are the typical examples of examining pictures looking for a Cat or a Dog, or some famous person, etc. Most of these examples are very noddy, although they do illustrate important examples.

But what if this same technology was used to monitor people going about their daily lives. What if pictures and/or video was captured of you as you walked down the street or on your way to work or to a meeting. These pictures and videos are being taken of you without you knowing.

And this raises a wide range of Ethical concerns. There are the ethics of deploying such solutions in the public domain, but there are also ethical concerns for the data scientists, machine learner, and other people working on these projects. “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”. People need to decide, if they are working on one of these projects, if they should be working on it and if not what they can do.

Ethics are the principals of behavior based on ideas of right and wrong. Ethical principles often focus on ideas such as fairness, respect, responsibility, integrity, quality, transparency and trust.  There is a lot in that statement on Ethics, but we all need to consider that is right and what is wrong. But instead of wrong, what is grey-ish, borderline scenarios.

Here are some examples that might fall into the grey-ish space between right and wrong. Why they might fall more towards the wrong is because most people are not aware their image is being captured and used, not just for a particular purpose at capture time, but longer term to allow for better machine learning models to be built.

Can you imagine walking down the street with a digital display in front of you. That display is monitoring you, and others, and then presents personalized adverts on the digital display aim specifically at you. A classify example of this is in the film Minority Report. This is no longer science fiction.

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This is happening at the Westfield shopping center in London and in other cities across UK and Europe. These digital advertisement screens are monitoring people, identifying their personal characteristics and then customizing the adverts to match in with the profile of the people walking past. This solutions has been developed and rolled out by Ocean Out Door. They are using machine learning to profile the individual people based on gender, age, facial hair, eye wear, mood, engagement, attention time, group size, etc. They then use this information to:

  1. Optimisation – delivering the appropriate creative to the right audience at the right time.
  2. Visualise – Gaze recognition to trigger creative or an interactive experience
  3. AR Enabled – Using the HD cameras to create an augmented reality mirror or window effect, creating deep consumer engagement via the latest technology
  4. Analytics – Understanding your brand’s audience, post campaign analysis and creative testing

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Face Plus Plus can monitor people walking down the street and do similar profiling, and can bring it to another level where by they can identify what clothing you are wearing and what the brand is. Image if you combine this with location based services. An example of this, imagine you are walking down the high street or a major retail district. People approach you trying to entice you into going into a particular store, and they offer certain discounts. But you are with a friend and the store is not interested in them.

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The store is using video monitoring, capturing details of every person walking down the street and are about to pass the store. The video is using machine/deep learning to analyze you profile and what brands you are wearing. The store as a team of people who are deployed to stop and engage with certain individuals, just because they make the brands or interests of the store and depending on what brands you are wearing can offer customized discounts and offers to you.

How comfortable would you be with this? How comfortable would you be about going shopping now?

For me, I would not like this at all, but I can understand why store and retail outlets are interested, as they are all working in a very competitive market trying to maximize every dollar or euro they can get.

Along side the ethical concerns, we also have some legal aspects to consider. Some of these are a bit in the grey-ish area, as some aspects of these kind of scenarios are slightly addresses by EU GDPR and the EU Artificial Intelligence guidelines. But what about other countries around the World. Then it comes to training and deploying these facial models, they are dependent on having a good training data set. This means they needs lots and lots of pictures of people and these pictures need to be labelled with descriptive information about the person. For these public deployments of facial recognition systems, then will need more and more training samples/pictures. This will allow the models to improve and evolve over time. But how will these applications get these new pictures? They claim they don’t keep any of the images of people. They only take the picture, use the model on it, and then perform some action. They claim they do not keep the images! But how can they improve and evolve their solution?

I’ll have another blog post giving more examples of how machine/deep learning, video and image captures are being used to monitor people going about their daily lives.