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Privacy, Discrimination, and Facial Recognition at Airports

photograph of line of people with luggage at airport

If you find yourself traveling, you may notice that your identity is being verified in a new and different way. Instead of showing your ID to an employee in the security line, you may find that you’re asked to insert it into a machine while a camera captures your image. The machine software will then determine whether that image matches the person on your ID. Some airports use databases for identification so that the ID does not even need to be scanned.

The technology has been developed by the transportation security administration, and they’ve been quietly rolling it out at airports across the country. The primary advantages are that this system is potentially faster, easier, and more accurate. Airline travel in the middle of the 20th century was advertised as glamorous and comfortable. There now seems to be no end to the inconveniences travelers have to endure. To some, anything that makes the process less like an interrogation would count as an improvement.

On the other hand, many are alarmed to see this technology emerge without much warning. Some are concerned about the government having access to this kind of data. They are now allegedly using it to make airline travel easier, but there are lingering suspicions about what it could be used for in the future. It has become commonplace for people to become aware that a corporation has used their data for purposes to which they did not knowingly consent; data is sold to third parties and used for targeted advertising. For many, these concerns are even more troubling when the entity gathering the information is the government. The government could potentially build a database of everyone’s faces and use it in settings in which citizens would not be comfortable. For instance, while smart buildings offer significant potential for more environmentally friendly institutions, some are also designed with facial recognition technology. Some argue that this would be an improvement — the technology could recognize potential threats or disgruntled former employees before acts of violence can take place. Others respond that this benefit would not be worth the violation of privacy that would result — the government could potentially know where people are all the time, at least when they are in or near government buildings. If the moral right to privacy involves maintaining control over one’s own body, that right seems to be substantially violated when corporations and the government are cyberstalking people all of the time.

There are also serious concerns about how these systems will determine which individuals count as threats. People are concerned about what’s become familiar forms of algorithm bias. There is data to support the idea that facial recognition programs do less well identifying the faces of people of color. A recent study concluded that Native American, Black, and Asian people were 100% more likely to be misidentified than their white counterparts, and women were much more likely to be misidentified than men. (Middle-aged men had the highest accuracy rate of identification overall.) People of color already encounter racial profiling at airports, and this policy has the potential to make these problems worse. Our current political circumstances make discrimination even more likely. Heated political rhetoric has made life more challenging for Muslims and Chinese people, especially at airports. Further, concerns about being misidentified by AI airport security may create a chilling effect on travel for members of these groups, constituting a form of systemic racial oppression.

Those who defend the system point out that travelers can opt out of facial recognition by simply saying, “Please don’t take my photo.” If this is the case, the argument is that the government isn’t really violating people’s autonomy — they have the right to say “no.” There are, however, a number of responses to this argument. First, travelers may be concerned about what might happen to them if they refuse to comply. Travel is a critical human need, especially as our experience is increasingly globalized and our loved ones and livelihoods are more likely to be scattered across states, countries, and even continents. If a person is detained by security, they might miss the birth of a child or saying goodbye to a dying relative. The circumstances at airports are inherently coercive and people might be deeply concerned that they won’t get to their location unless they go along. Second, a person may have a right to say “no” as a matter of policy, but it is very unlikely that any particular passenger will know that they have it. Finally, a person is unlikely to want to make waves, delay other travelers, and potentially embarrass themselves. If a “right of refusal” policy is coercive and lacks transparency, citizens cannot give fully free and informed consent.

Like so many recent developments in technology, facial recognition motivates questions about authority and political legitimacy. Who gets to make these decisions and why? The answers to these questions are far from obvious. Allowing those who stand to gain the most power or earn the greatest profit to dictate protocols seems like a bad idea. Instead, we may have to trust our elected representatives to craft policy. The problem with this approach is that, for many legislators, winning re-election takes precedence over any policy issue, no matter how dire. We need look no further than lack of progress on climate policy to see that this is the case. Alternatively, we could bring questions of the greatest existential import to public referendum and decide them by a direct democratic process. The problem with this is the standard problem for democracy posed by philosophers for decades — the population as a whole can be woefully underinformed and act tyrannically.

One lesson that we’re left with is that we shouldn’t let these major changes blow by without comment or criticism. It’s easy to adopt a kind of cynicism that causes us to believe in technological determinism — the view that any development that can happen will happen. But policies are made by people. And one of the most important roles that sound public philosophy can play is to demand justification and ensure that policy is supported by deliberate and defensible moral principles.

Privacy and a Year in the Life of Facebook

Photograph of Mark Zuckerberg standing with a microphone

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, declared on January 4 that he would “fix Facebook” in 2018. Since then, the year has contained scandal after scandal. Throughout the year, Facebook has provided a case study of questions regarding how to protect or value information privacy. On March 17, the New York Times and The Guardian revealed that Cambridge Analytica used information gleaned from Facebook users to attempt to influence voters’ behavior. Zuckerberg had to testify before Congress and rolled out new data privacy practices. In April, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed to be more far-reaching than previously thought and in June it was revealed that Facebook shared data with other companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. The UK fined Facebook the legal maximum for illegal handling of user data related to Cambridge Analytica. In September, a hack accessed 30 million users data. In November, another New York Times investigation revealed that Facebook had failed to be sufficiently forthcoming about Russia’s interference on the site regarding political manipulation, and on December 18 more documents came out showing that Facebook offered user data, even from private messages, to companies including Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify and Amazon.

The repeated use of data regarding users of Facebook without their knowledge or consent, often to manipulate their future behavior as consumers or voters, has led to Facebook’s financial decline and loss of public trust. The right to make your own decisions regarding access to information about your life is called informational privacy. We can articulate the tension in discussions over the value of privacy as between the purported right to be left alone, on the one hand, and the supposed right of society to know about its members on the other. The rapid increase in technology that can collect and disseminate information about individuals raises the question of whether the value of privacy should shift along with this shift in actual privacy practices or whether greater efforts need to be devoted to protect the informational privacy of members of society.

The increase in access to personal information is just one impact of the rise of information technology. Technological advances have also affected the meaning of personal information. For instance, it has become easier to track your physical whereabouts given the sorts of apps and social media that are commonly used, but also the reason that the data from Facebook is so useful is that so much can be extrapolated about a person based on seemingly unrelated behaviors, changing what sorts of information may be considered sensitive. Cambridge Analytica was able to use Facebook data to attempt to sway voting behavior because of trends in activity on the social media site and political behavior. Advertising companies can take advantage of the data to better target consumers.

When ethicists and policy makers began discussing the right to privacy, considerations centered on large and personal life choices and protecting public figures from journalists. The aspects of our lives that we would typically consider most central to the value of privacy would be aspects of our health, say, our religious and political beliefs, and other aspects of life deemed personal such as romantic and sexual practices and financial situations. The rise of data analysis that comes with social media renders a great deal of our behaviors potentially revelatory: what pictures we post, what posts we like, how frequently we use particular language, etc. can be suggestive of a variety of further aspects of our life and behaviors.

If information regarding our behavior on platforms such as Facebook is revealing of the more traditionally conceived private domain of our lives, should this information be protected? Or should we reconceive of what we conceive of as private? One suggestion has been to acknowledge the brute economic fact of the rise of these technologies: this data is worth money. Therefore, it could be possible to abstract away from the moral value or right to privacy and focus instead on the reality that data is worth something, but if the individual owns the data about themselves they perhaps are owed the profits of the use of their data.

There are moral reasons to protect personal data. If others have unrestricted access to their whereabouts, health information, passwords protecting financial accounts, etc., they could be used to harm the individual. Security and a right to privacy thus could be justified as harm prevention. It also could be justified via right to autonomy, as data about one’s life can be used to unduly influence her choices. This is exacerbated by the ways that data changes relevance and import depending on the sphere in which it is used. For instance, revealing data regarding your health being used in your healthcare dealings has different significance than if potential employers had access to such data. If individuals are in less control over their personal data, this can lead to discrimination and disadvantages.

Thus there are both economic or property considerations as well as moral considerations for protecting personal data. Zuckerberg has failed to “fix” Facebook in 2018, but more transparency of the protections and regulation of how platforms can use data would be positive moves forward for respecting our value of privacy in 2019.

Liability Versus Deterrent: The Patriot Missile Defense System

Photograph of missiles accompanied by Romanian troops

On March 25, Houthi rebels launched a series of missiles at Riyadh in an another attempt to push Saudi Arabia into reacting and escalating tensions in the ongoing Yemen War. Saudi Arabia has issued a statement claiming that their Patriot Missile Defense System was able to intercept all seven missiles, successfully protecting the population from Houthi attack. The Patriot Missile Defense System is a set of “radars, command-and-control technology and multiple types of interceptors, currently used by 15 countries, including Germany, Japan, Israel, Spain, and Qatar. Yet, despite the confidence behind the Saudi statements, reports were made about the repeated malfunctioning of the Patriot Missile Defense System, and the Saudis’ need to cover up the failure of the system. Similar cases occurred in November and December of 2017 in Saudi Arabia, with the Israeli Air Force pointing to the fact that there is no evidence of even a single successful intercept.” Notably, there are different versions of the system, all of which are upgrades from the previous versions, all of which differ in efficiency. However, despite the upgrades in efficiency, one ought to evaluate whether governments covering up the (in)effectiveness of the defense system works to benefit citizens’ security or create a more unsafe world. According to Jerry Lewis  and his team at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, an analysis of the effectiveness of Patriot system leads to a troubling result: governments either lie about the effectiveness of the Patriot system, or they are greatly misinformed. Either way, their results are not reassuring for greater security. Continue reading “Liability Versus Deterrent: The Patriot Missile Defense System”

Richard Mosse and the Ethics of Photographing Crisis

The ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has raised ethical concerns surrounding immigration, borders, and terrorism. However, one less-discussed ethical dilemma surrounding refugees is that of photojournalism and art. Irish photographer Richard Mosse made headlines last week after publishing photographs taken of refugee camps using cameras with military grade thermal radiation. The photographs are extremely detailed and might even portray a sense of voyeurism.

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Trump’s Southern White House

President Donald Trump has spent three of the past four weekends in Florida at his Mar-a-Lago resort, conducting political business from interviewing cabinet nominees, hosting the Japanese prime minister, and formulating a response to a North Korean missile test at the club instead of in Washington. On Saturday morning, the president went so far as to dub the establishment “the Southern White House” in a tweet. While the Trump family’s extensive travel has already sparked concerns, Trump’s decision to hold numerous political meetings outside the actual White House is raising serious concerns about access and security.

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Balancing Religious Freedom and Security in Germany’s Full-Veil Ban

Although nations have been dealing with international Islamic terrorism since the 1960s, Islamism’s threat has expanded over the last half-century. It has seeped out of immediate regional disputes in the Middle East and found its way directly into Western territory with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centers and the subsequent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

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Right to Privacy: Advertising in the Modern Age

Chances are, you’ve experienced it, too. You innocently type a word or phrase into Google — “Birkenstocks”, for example. It’s a casual, one-time search to gauge the general retail price for a pair of comfortable sandals. Unfortunately, this search continues to follow you for weeks after as your Facebook ads attempt to show you the lowest prices on Birkenstocks at malls near you while YouTube ads feature Macy’s, a popular department store and footwear retailer (who happens to sell Birkenstocks as well).

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Ebola: No Longer a Microscopic Problem

Over the past two weeks, reports of a Liberian man with Ebola being treated in Dallas have captivated our public discourse. Some worry that this may be a “Patient Zero” situation, and that the outbreak will soon transcend borders to become a global epidemic. While this fervor has taken place at home, however, even more profound turns in the handling of the Ebola outbreak are unfolding abroad.

Continue reading “Ebola: No Longer a Microscopic Problem”