By Tom Squitieri, Talk Media News
WASHINGTON— With COVID-19 as justification, the Chinese government is increasing its efforts to meld facial recognition and contact tracing into a potential powerful new tool to reign in the personal privacy of its citizens.
Some at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the U.S. government have taken notice and are responding.
“We will preserve our military and technological advantage through AI in collaboration with the American tech industry and through our continued engagement with international allies and partners where we are laying the foundation for defense cooperation in the digital era,” Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, the spokesperson from the DoD Joint AI Center, said.
Chasing, matching and advancing what China is doing is justified under national security, Pentagon officials have said repeatedly. To fall behind a prime U.S. adversary such as China is a major risk, Pentagon officials have said.
Abrahamson said that the Pentagon “will not discuss what we may or may not know about potential adversary capabilities or how we came by any related information.” He also said the Joint AI Center is on the record regarding the U.S. military’s position on not using facial recognition technology for any domestic purpose.
However, a crisis and emergency often gives a government the opportunity to slice back privacy and freedom under the banner of national security, a concern raised by many.
“It is like the day after 9-11,” Michael Daugherty, founder of the Justice Society and CEO of LabMD, said in an interview regarding contact tracing and facial recognition merging. “They are just exploiting it and this is the nightmare about COVID. Everyone has sent themselves up in the Google school of medicine, they are using this as a new excuse to go and take our civil rights.
“It is the scientific version of the Patriot Act,” he said.
Efforts to track, corner and deal with COVID have spurred the Pentagon into repurposing existing tools, officials said. It already has, through DARPA, its research and discovery wing, the Advanced Facial Recognition (AFR) module that enables security and surveillance personnel to capture images and compare them to pictures already in the Composite Intelligence Database.
These and more advanced techniques were not used during recent demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere — in large part because of confusion as to who was in charge and giving orders. That confusion has now been eliminated with the establishment of a Homeland Security militia force being dispatched to control demonstrators.
“Governments and corporations are partnering, in the name of COVID-19 containment, to gather lots of personal information from the public,” Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. This puts our privacy at risk. So we need strong new laws to protect our COVID-related data.”
The market for this technology is surging. According to the research report “Facial Recognition Market” by Component, the facial recognition industry is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7.0 billion by 2024 in the U.S. Prime uses: surveillance and marketing.
DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. A spokesman said the agency does not have any contact tracing programs and that it “has swerved several of its programs to face the COVID-19 crisis head-on, but those efforts are attending to diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics, and manufacturing.”
However, contact tracing clearly is on the minds at DARPA. In an interview earlier this year for the “voices from DARPA” program Dr. Brad Ringeisen, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said the tide has shifted for contact tracing.
“This is something that I think even two months ago, people maybe didn’t understand and people are now becoming much more comfortable with understanding contact tracing and what that actually means and why that’s important,” Ringeisen said.
DARPA operates by funding research centers to pursue its projects. Technically the money can only be spent for defense research for projects with direct military applications.
That definition is often fluid. For example, SIMBA Chain, a DARPA-funded government contractor, is partnering with the Stanford Medicine Healthcare Innovation Lab and Prysm Group to develop an incentive-compatible, contact trying system where users — in theory — will not have to provide personal data.
“As we look to the future, the insatiable desire both of government agencies and organizations to understand human behavior through behavioral analytics will result in an invasive deployment of cameras, sensors and applications in public and private places,” Steve Durbin, Managing Director of Information Security Forum Limited, said in an interview.
“Some of this has already been seen and there are many instances of nations using COVID-19 response to gather data that would normally be fiercely protected under privacy laws such as GDPR with guidelines being circumvented under the guise of public health and safety,” he said.