Efforts to ensure ethical use of biometric surveillance technology face scrutiny

Efforts to ensure ethical use of biometric surveillance technology face scrutiny

IBM’s role in surveillance systems allegedly used to carry out extra-judicial killings directed by Rodrigo Duterte prior to becoming president of the Philippines, is the subject of an investigative report by The Intercept. The report suggests that the tech giant turned a blind eye to abuses of the system by law enforcement, and may have provided biometric technology allowing political opponents and others to be tracked.

The contract for Davao City’s surveillance system was signed by IBM in 2012, when Duterte’s daughter was mayor of Davao City. When IBM provided technology to the Intelligent Operations Center in Davao, it had been three years since Human Rights Watch published an investigation which indicated that while Rodrigo Duterte was mayor, drug dealer, petty criminals, and street children had been assassinated by death squads, with evidence of complicity or direct involvement by government officials and police.

Activists working with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights say 213 extrajudicial killings carried out by Davao death squads have been documented between 2013 and 2016, when a Davao security official told The Intercept that the IBM system was in active use. An IBM spokesperson noted that the company has not supplied the Intelligent Operations Center with technology since 2012, though The Intercept says it may have continued to provide support services.

A “war on drugs” carried out by Duterte has resulted in anywhere from 5,000 to 27,000 deaths.

Former IBM salesman Sayaji Shinde told The Intercept that the technology provided by the company included video analytics capabilities, which could tag objects and people by their physical attributes. The IBM spokesperson says the company’s biometric Face Capture technology was not included in the deal, and a city official recently said in an interview that the functionality was planned but not formally deployed. A 2015 promotional video for the Davao Public Safety and Security Command Center (PSSCC), however, features a clip of Face Capture in use.

Law enforcement officials interviewed by The Intercept made light of human rights abuses, legal due process, and the official version of suspected assassinations by law enforcement, and rights campaigners and an unnamed U.S. official briefed by IBM about its Davao City contract said the company must have been aware of the human rights conditions it was operating in.

Now, Huawei is expected to supply facial recognition technology to the national command center of a “Safe Philippines” project, as the country turns away from American influence towards China.

Increasing partnerships carry risk

The set of questions posed by IBM’s involvement in law enforcement surveillance systems in the Philippines is reminiscent of the recent SenseNets data leak. The leak revealed the extent of biometric surveillance in Xinjiang, where more than a million people are believed to be held in “re-education centers,” and the possible use of Microsoft technology in that surveillance system.

Microsoft has denied involvement, but Foreign Policy reports that whether intentionally or not, American tech companies have provided expertise, credibility, and technology to Chinese surveillance companies.

Thermo Fisher Scientific and prominent geneticist Dr. Kenneth Kidd helped China’s DNA registration program in Xinjiang, and the company has since announced a policy to consider how its products will be used.

The Chinese government says its surveillance programs have led to 13,000 terrorism arrests, with the result that no terrorist attacks have taken place in the region for more than two years. The scale of arrests and the absence of incidents means that the assertion begs the very question it is intended to answer, however.

Foreign Policy offers the research partnership between MIT and SenseTime announced in February, 2018, when the facial recognition unicorn owned a now-divested 49 percent stake in SenseNets, as an example of potentially troubling cross-pollination. SenseNets owner NetPosa also owns stakes in U.S. robotics startup Bito and drone software company Exyn, which is participating in an artificial intelligence challenge from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). NetPosa received investment funding from Intel in 2010, and has multiple offices in the U.S. iFlytek has also been identified as a technology supplier for Chinese government surveillance, and reached a collaborative agreement with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) last June.

The Commerce Department issued a rulemaking proposal for controlling exports of emerging technologies in November that Foreign Policy suggests may be a good way to disentangle U.S. companies from the possible irresponsible or unethical uses of their technologies they say they are trying to prevent, but the details remain to be seen.

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