By Johan Steyn, 27 September 2022
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” Thus begins a book that would change the world. It certainly changed my life, and the more I learn about artificial intelligence (AI) technology, the more I appreciate this book.
Winston, the main character, realises that his every move and word is being monitored. “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made... would be picked up by it ... There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.”
The only comfort for Winston was the realisation that “they” could not read his thoughts. “They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head, you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness, they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking.”
He was trying to evade the ever-gazing eyes and ears of the “Thought Police”, also known as “Big Brother”. Winston’s life, like that of all people, was one of perpetual surveillance.
I am, of course, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Written primarily as a commentary on Soviet-style dictatorship, the term “Orwellian” rings true more today than ever before.
The fact is that we are living in a world where we are all under constant scrutiny — some call it the surveillance society. Our world can function, at least in part, as a result of the extensive collection, recording, storage, analysis, and application of information about individuals and groups going about their everyday activities.
The phrase “surveillance” refers to the routine collection of data on individuals with the explicit purpose of ruling, regulating, managing, or otherwise having some kind of influence over what they choose to do in the future. Subjecting a large portion of a population to indiscriminate monitoring constitutes a systematic violation of people's right to privacy.
Intelligence agencies and law enforcement perform mass surveillance using an ever-expanding variety of various tools and techniques. These include the direct mass interception of communications, access to bulk communications maintained by telecom companies, and the indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology.
The population of SA is not spared from governmentally initiated mass surveillance programmes. Foremost one can think of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act (RICA.)
Digital communication lacks safeguards to prevent abuse and intercepting and analysing it does not require a warrant. It disregards the reality that attorneys and journalists are required to safeguard the confidentiality of their clients and sources. There is no provision for telling individuals who are being monitored.
Orwell’s character Winston could not imagine that they knew what people are thinking. But these days, because of the unimaginable amount of data available on most people, and by using behavioural predictive algorithms — not to mention our social media activity — it is possible to accurately predict the thoughts and intents of people.
AI technology enables our government to know more about its citizens and therefore exert more control than ever before. One is left to wonder, who is watching the watchers?
• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of AIforBusiness.net