Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Do you remember the period after 9/11 when we were learning with alarm that the Department of Homeland Security wanted to put surveillance cameras on our street corners? Although some people saw the wisdom of that decision, others were apprehensive about cameras appearing everywhere we went. Wouldn’t those cameras be an invasion of privacy? Were they really necessary to identify terrorists? Or could they be used for other insidious purposes?
Over time, however, we seem to have become less concerned about those cameras. We’ve learned that criminals can be identified, attacks on people can be recorded and the bad guys will learn that it’s more difficult to escape the law. Yet we’re also noticing that with the most recent actions by the government to threaten our rights and our privacy, we have much more at stake regarding our personal lives than ever before.
We now have “smart cities” all over the country, which are digitally sophisticated:
What’s more, the pitfalls may soon outweigh the supposed benefits.
That’s because ‘smart”’ is increasingly a euphemism for surveillance. Cities in at least 56 countries worldwide have deployed surveillance technologies powered by automatic data mining, facial recognition, and other forms of artificial intelligence. Urban surveillance is a multibillion-dollar industry, with Chinese and U.S.-based companies such as Axis, Dahua, Hikvision, Huawei, and ZTE leading the charge. Whether they are in China or elsewhere, smart cities are usually described in benign terms with the soothing promise of greener energy solutions, lower-friction mobility, and safer streets. Yet in a growing number of places from New York to Hong Kong, there are growing concerns about the ways in which supercharged surveillance is encroaching on free speech, privacy, and data protection. But the truth is that facial recognition and related technologies are far from the most worrisome feature of smart cities.
Now we see the Chinese marketing a new product that has taken the country by storm: a smart lamp with two cameras to help parents supervise children doing their homework. (Many of us already have cameras in our homes to watch our children with their babysitters.) These lamps range from $120 to $170; the more expensive model tells parents if their children are slouching.
For many years, the Chinese have been intensifying their invasion into their citizens’ lives. Unlike U.S. citizens, the Chinese are either not bothered by these intrusions, try to ignore them, or realize there’s not much they can do about them. The company that popularized these lamps, ByteDance, Inc., reports selling 10,000 lamps within the first month of sales. The company states that both children and parents must consent to the use of these lamps for remote monitoring. (I’m not sure how willing Chinese children would be to defy their parents’ desire to watch them.) Meanwhile, the obsession with the Chinese for high-performing children motivates them to use every means financially available to ensure their children’s success.
* * * *
So why should China’s increased opportunities for surveillance matter to those of us in the United States? At a time when we are experiencing a widespread effort to invade our privacy, including efforts made by the NSA in the recent past, I think that this “smart lamp” technology may be the tip of the iceberg in terms of its application and affordability. I wonder if, with so many Americans working at home, many companies (with a plethora of excuses), will ask employees who want to continue to work from home to install one of these lamps or something similar; clearly it would provide the opportunity to spy on employees and to monitor how much time they actually spend working. A business may make it a work requirement for an employee to install this kind of lamp if he or she wants to continue to work from home. It could also be used to spy on other activities. In fact, for those employees who return to the office, this equipment may be viewed as the ideal tool to watch how productive employees actually are; it could become standard office equipment for those who continue to commute to work.
For those who think this kind of demand is beyond the pale, keep in mind the demands that organizations and government have already made on us, and their efforts are still ongoing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an effort to install these lamps or some other surveillance device. If their use were ubiquitous, where would you go to find a workplace without them?
Let’s just hope they don’t include the lamps who check on whether or not you’re slouching.Published in