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"It's absolutely false to think that we in democratic countries have it any different to China," insists Frederic Lemieux. "The only difference is that China is open about what it does and we have a more layered, subtle approach. Governments say they’re not bad but the fact is that they have access to everything if they want it. Frankly, it's hard to grasp the scope of the surveillance apparatus today."

Lemieux is a professor at Georgetown University, US, specialising in information technology, and he uses a virtual private network. He avoids Zoom and social media; has "privacy settings through the roof". Lemieux is only "friends" online with people he’s met several times in person. He watches what he says in emails, won’t wear a smartwatch. And he is not remotely paranoid.

Just look, he says, at the mobile surveillance spyware Pegasus—technically illegal in the US. And yet the FBI has just been caught out. They are forced to cancel its arrangement with a government contractor that used the tool on its behalf. It’s the latest instance of an abuse of power. And the data breaches that underscore it are uncovered somewhere around the world every few months. Many more, one can only assume, are not. "So am I hopeful of some correction to this surveillance culture?" says Lemieux. "No."

Perhaps this culture has been a long-time coming. After all, the idea of systematic surveillance is not new. The Panopticon was the name given to an ideal prison devised by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1787. In it, every prisoner would—as an encouragement to improved behaviour—be observable without ever knowing if they were being observed. It would, as Bentham put it, create a "sense of invisible omniscience". And, he added, more darkly: "Ideal perfection would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so."

In Bentham's time, this was no more than a thought experiment. Today the situation is very different. As the tech entrepreneur Maciej Ceglowski put it to a US Senate committee in 2019, "Until recently, even people living in a police state could count on the fact that the authorities didn’t have enough equipment or manpower to observe everyone, everywhere". Now, it seems, it looks as though they "enjoyed more freedom from monitoring then than we do living in a free society today."

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It’s easy to see why. The aforementioned spyware, with advanced processing power, can now collate, save and analyse truly awesome quantities of data. Increasingly prevalent CCTV has morphed into often erratic facial-recognition technology and biometrics. That includes the unevidenced idea that people’s emotional state can be read through their physical appearance. Drones have provided 'eyes in the sky'. These digital currencies—actively promoted in many nations as a stepping stone to doing away with cash—will allow the tracking of all financial transactions. So-called 'smart cities'—the UN recognised Singapore as a world-leading example—see the mass deployment of intrusive sensors to monitor its citizenry. Supposedly with the intention of improving the urban environment. And there's ever more wearable tech, RFID tags, GPS dots and the growing Internet of Things to provide anyone sufficiently well-resourced with a detailed picture of what once was considered private.

“But then we have also become largely indifferent to matters of privacy,” stresses sociologist Dr Gary Armstrong, co-author of The Maximum Surveillance Society. “Generation Facebook/ Tik-Tok / Instagram have a different perception of privacy than my generation—over 60s—and think nothing of self- revelation and self-promotion. As it stands the state knows less about me than, say, supermarket chains do.”

How so? Invariably because the greatest tool in the snoop’s armoury is, as Lemieux puts it, "our own complicity". We let Alexa listen and Ring Video doorbells watch. We sign up for loyalty schemes. Given that 86 per cent of the growing world’s population owns a smartphone, we willingly allow the means of our own monitoring. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Centre and professor of sociology and law at Queen’s University, Ontario, argues that while CCTV might remain the most powerful symbol of surveillance, to still think of it as the most powerful means of surveillance is way out of date. That's the gadget in our own pocket. Our self-imposed, frantically upgraded, style-conscious ankle monitors. He calls the result 'dataveillance', our supervision and assessment through a melding of state and corporate interests.

"And that’s been mutating and accelerating at a rapid rate," he says. Lyon cites a recent case in Canada. A user of the ordering app from a Tim Hortons put in a "freedom of information" request about its function. He discovers that, even when he thought he had disabled it, the app continued to track his movements. It even recorded when he visited one of the company’s competitors.

What he still didn’t grasp, however, was "the other uses that data was undoubtedly put to. His data was sold to and among other corporations and institutions in what has become a globally-significant economic system," says Lyon. "It's not just about being tracked but analysed, and then treated according to the profile then created and from which all kinds of judgments are made—by employers, healthcare providers, banks, insurers, law enforcement. The thing is that most people just don’t get that this is even happening."

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Small wonder then that when the public reaction to surveillance is discussed it is, at best, rather muted. As Lyon puts it, "we've become seduced [through our smartphones] by the idea of the world organised around our needs, living in a very consumerist society in which efficiency, convenience and comfort have been elevated into core values"—"luxury surveillance" as it has been dubbed. And even if we give it some thought, our rationalisations justifying our acceptance of surveillance tend to be misguided, adds Juan Lindau, professor of political science at Colorado College, US, and author of Surveillance and the Vanishing Individual.

People dismiss the encroachment of surveillance because "they have nothing to hide"—"but it's a bullshit notion that they wouldn't mind if every detail of their life was out there for all to see," Lindau notes. Or they say they're too irrelevant to be of interest—"but if you ever do anything of even remote political consequence then you’re immediately not irrelevant to the state," he adds. Or there's the argument that any one personal revelation is now merely lost in a giant sea of revelations and so doesn't matter.

"But its evil brilliance... is that tech gives the veneer of distance and [us the sense of] anonymity that is entirely fictitious," he says. "It is not impersonal. We spend our lives now interacting with machines that observe all, that never forget and never forgive, such that the delineation between our inner and outer selves is [breaking down] by stealth."

It's also because thinking seriously about the boundaries for surveillance is relatively new. Before the seismic revelations of Edward Snowden, much concern about surveillance was dismissed as so much conspiracy thinking, argues Professor Peter Fussey, an expert in criminology at the University of Essex, UK. That, and because much of the surveillance apparatus is, governments so often argue, for our own safety. That's the line Myanmar has taken in the junta’s crackdown on protests. Or for more effective, worryingly "proactive", increasingly militarised crime prevention.

That's concerning. As Armstrong argues, we're well on our way to systems that look for the potentially suspicious or merely inappropriate. "Doing that requires a database of both known and potential offenders. And such schemes are always sold on the benefits of apprehending these known offenders," he says. "But these schemes are expansionist and soon develop databases of 'people of interest' too".

But it's also concerning when national emergencies are used to bring in more surveillance. We see subsequent spikes in favour of its expansion. A TNS poll conducted in 2014—three years after 9/11, but also not long after Snowden—found that 71 per cent of respondents thought the government should prioritise reducing the public threat "even if this erodes people's right to privacy".

"The idea that surveillance is for our own safety holds water, but only up to a point. Surveillance doesn't inherently make us safer. And that’s aside from the misplaced assumption that surveillance always works, as many cases of misidentification suggest," says Fussey. (He also an independent human rights observer of London’s Metropolitan Police while it trialled facial recognition technology from 2020.)

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"The problem with people being suddenly more accepting of surveillance after, say, a terrorist attack is that the powers then given [to the machinery of state] don't tend to be rolled back later," he adds. "And then there is the fact that if we keep creating these tools that can be used for surveillance—even if that's not their intended use—they will be. There is simply just so much evidence for their misuse."

Furthermore, the expanding means of surveillance—from gait recognition to remote heartbeat analysis—are developed at such a pace that campaigners and legislators can barely keep up. It says something concerning that a hugely powerful business like Amazon has been entirely open in its ambition to create tech products with what it calls "ambient intelligence". They are always there in the background harvesting your life.

There's mission creep to contend with as well. If it wasn't bad enough the state and commerce wanting to watch us, remote working has encouraged a culture of surveillance among employers too. There was a boom in monitoring software. Tech used to map the behaviour, mood, eye movement, location, online activity and productivity of often oblivious workers. The American attorney Zephyr Teachout has predicted the coming of "surveillance wages". This is where each worker’s pay is constantly changing according to that worker's perceived alignment with their employer's expectations. Data would be used for hiring and firing decisions.

Could a new ad-free business model be devised for the web, disincentivising data collection? Could the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation be adopted beyond its borders? Even as Facebook obtusely moaned about how it and other regulations "may be costly to comply with and may delay or impede the development of new products, increase our costs, require significant management time and subject us to remedies that may harm our business".

Is there scope for a rebalancing of the interests of the surveillance industrial complex and individuals' rights? This segment makes billions from monetising data flows, with China and US the leading exporters of surveillance tech. Surely the transparency and accountability necessary for the relationship between state and citizen to function requires it? And yet, right down to how certain parts of your smartphones algorithms work, all is opaque, and getting more so.

Photo by Tushar Mahajan on Unsplash

"We have to have a much clearer sense of how surveillance will be used, whether it's legitimate and the necessary limits on its use," implores Fussey. "We're invited to think that the technology is just too complicated, but actually the standards we need to protect—standards in international law—are basic. The problem is who enforces those standards. We need the right policies, programmes and oversight."

"My concern is that so much surveillance now isn't just about watching where you go and what you do but what information you consume and what thoughts you express," adds Lemieux. "Surveillance can now be used to gauge opinion and so influence opinion too. It's not just about watching us through data but manipulating us through data."

Indeed, the instruments of surveillance only look set to get more invasive, more clever, more wily and devious. The tide might be turning. Lindau argues that after a long period of being "promiscuous with sharing our information", some of us are waking up. With low download rates for various government-driven tracking apps during Covid, the pandemic opened the doors to data collection and tracking on a scale that would have been imaginable just a few years before. Some cities— Portland, Oregon, for example—have banned the use of facial recognition in their stores and restaurants. And there’s a growing academic interest in surveillance overreach too.

And yet the more a surveillance mindset is applied, the more ordinary it seems. "Citizens are allowing greater and greater intrusion, to the point where the distinction between public and private has really broken down at this juncture," suggests Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Rise of Digital Repression. "The smartphone has normalised surveillance but it's a slippery slope. You continue to push at the boundaries and surveillance just becomes more and more acceptable. And there are no concerns about this because there is no political will [to make changes]. And there's no political will because nobody seems to care about it. We're seeing a greater level of omni-surveillance made possible and that needs more push-back."

In fact, we're moving towards TIA or Total Information Awareness. "The goal to know everything about everyone in real-time," as Lindau explains. "And so far all that has limited that most totalitarian of ambitions has been the tools."

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

The really bad news? The tools are coming. The AI Global Surveillance Index suggests that at least 75 out of 176 countries, many being liberal democracies, use AI for automated surveillance purposes. "All considerations we have about surveillance get put on steroids with AI," Lindau says. The French government, for example, has passed a law allowing the use of AI in mass video surveillance at next year’s summer Olympics in Paris. For AI to work, the data must flow. Your data. Everybody's data. "The ease with which AI will be able to amass and process information, combined with facial recognition, well, that’s ominous," he says.

He cites by way of example his recent experience of returning home from a holiday in Norway. Passing through the notoriously aggressive and prying US Immigration, he expected the typical barrage of questions. Instead, he was just asked to look into a small camera. That was it. Lindau asked if they wanted the usual details about where he had been and for how long and why. No, they said casually, we already know that.

The Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses. RAY-BAN

I don't quite know how to feel about the new Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses. Especially when they run on AI. We get it, it's the whole handsfree, first-person POV experience ("Hey Meta, share this photo I took with just my literal face"). The convenience is clearly purposed for content creation, livestreaming and all that jazz. Allowing users to preview social media comments in real-time, even audibly, the ambitious eyewear also doubles as a pair of headphones and takes phone calls. Perhaps Meta thinks we aren't glued enough to our phones as it is.

Previously on Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses…

In partnership with EssilorLuxottica, the first generation—called "Ray-Ban Stories" because why bother hiding what they're really for—was launched in September 2021. They came in three styles (wayfarer, round and meteor), one colour (the very exciting black in shiny or matte) and two transitions options (the just as exciting grey and brown).

The second iteration now streamlined and lighter, boasts up to 150 frame and lens design combinations. More importantly, first-hand reviews are actually calling them comfortable. Water resistance clocks in at an IPX4 rating, should you consider skinny dipping.

Fancy design gif. RAY-BAN

Software upgrades

The biggest change, though, would undoubtedly be replacing the 5MP camera with an ultra-wide 12MP one. Capable of recording 1080p videos from a prior 780p in 60-second stints, the default mode is—surprise, surprise—now portrait rather than landscape. It also went from one microphone, which apparently wasn't much good in strong breeze, to a whopping five, including one on the nose bridge for a true 360 audio capture.

There's a marked difference in the listening experience too, via a 50 percent maximum volume increase and better directional output. Meaning you can continue discreetly enjoying the K-pop band you pretend not to like, unless you're standing in proximity within a silent room.

For privacy, which was a priority Meta strangely felt the need to emphasize, a blinking white light goes off when the device is recording. Minimizing the creep factor is something to appreciate when photo and video functions are easily activated by touchpads on the glasses' stems. Interestingly, this became the reason why certain frame colour options such as beige were removed as they were less obvious to see when the LED was turned on.

Operating on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon AR1 Gen 1 processor and eight times more internal storage at 32GB, the glasses allegedly last up to four hours of active use and come with a nifty sunglass charging case …which take approximately 75 minutes to full charge.

Wireless charging case. RAY-BAN

The AI bit

Besides taking your annoying voice commands, the integrated Meta AI is slated for an update next year to enable interaction with AR surroundings. Augmented reality is an intriguing direction to head in, when gadgets like Google Glass and Bose Frames never really took off. It begs the question why, when it didn't gain much traction two years ago, are they pitching a new version now?

Does the company know something we don't about the near future that produces this unfounded confidence in consumer demand? Will there be another pandemic where we will all be forced indoors to see the resurgence of virtual reality, NFTs and cryptocurrency? In other words, will the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses finally be cool? And will I ever get to answering these speculative questions as opposed to simply throwing them out there? I guess some things we'll never know.

Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses are up for preorder now on Ray-Ban / Meta and on sale 17 October from USD299.

Apple's annual 2023 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) conference occurred early this morning. And while the event is geared towards developers on the latest software releases, there were a few hardware announcements as well. Plus, it doesn't hurt for the rest of us non-developers to be privy to what the tech brand has on its upcoming slate. Here are some takeaways from the keynote:

Vision Pro

Throwing its hat into the mixed reality ring, Apple introduces the Vision Pro headset. This was the keystone's marquee piece that can do all the things you can do on your iPhone—answer calls; FaceTime; open e-mails; watch movies, browse the Internet... but in a mixed-reality landscape. It's Apple's answer to spatial computing, where apps come alive in your own personal space. Alas, it looks like you look like you're going snowboarding and given the external two-hour battery life, this device is clearly meant for indoors. There's also the issue of the price tag (US$3,499!) that many might baulk at. May the Vision Pro do what previous mixed reality predecessors (Google Glass; Oculus) have failed to do: be relevant.

watchOS 10

Next year, Apple Watch users can expect an upgrade for its iWatch. Users can expect updates to their Apple Watch experience like being able to add widgets to their smart stack; new apps; more utility with the digital crown, which showcases various widgets and new full-screen displays. The software update has your health covered, thanks to a focus on your mental well-being, determining if there's a safe distance between your screen and your eyes and getting you to spend time under the sun.

15" MacBook Air

The MacBook Air has always come in 13" for the longest time because it needed to live up to the lightness of the 'Air' part of its name. The 15" promises to remain lightweight while giving you a bigger display to work off from. Weighing slightly over 1.3kg and comes with an M2 chipset, the 15" MacBook Air is due to launch on 13 June.

macOS Sonoma

With a new MacBook Air on the way, why not a new OS update? Named after California's famed wine country, users can expect a bunch of upgraded features like the Game Mode function. This directs processing power to your games on the CPU and GPU of your Mac and lowers your background tasks' usage. Expect reduced latency with your wireless accessories, consistent frame rates and better responsiveness.

Gone are the flying toasters and forever-extending pipes from hell but the OS update grants you a more contemplative feel with the screensaver mode. There are new slow-motion screensavers depicting places of grandeur that aren't your drab office space.

Video conferencing will take on a more intuitive approach. Its Presenter Overlay keeps the spotlight on you with your screen framed next to you on a separate layer; this allows you to move in front of your content. Move You can move, walk, and talk in front of your content. If you want to look like a disembodied floating head, you can use the small overlay to appear in a movable bubble over your shared screen. Move yourself around the screen and make a spooky moaning sound during your presentation. Go on. Do it. Be the life of the office.

iOS 17

Another OS update, this time for your iPhone and it'll affect your phone, FaceTime and Messages apps. Calling for Siri will be twice as fast... when the update drops the 'Hey' from 'Hey, Siri'. The update will add more personality to your iPhone as you can customise your contact posters using either photos or Memoji. Call your friends and let them see you want yourself to be seen.

Live transcription in real-time for phone voicemails is also on the cards. As well as, this cool feature that allows you to share contacts, music or other shared activities with another iPhone user when the two of you bump your iPhones or Apple Watches together.

For more information on WWDC 2023, check out the Apple website.

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