Analysis & Opinions - Slate

The Internet Enabled Mass Surveillance. A.I. Will Enable Mass Spying.

| Dec. 04, 2023

Spying has always been limited by the need for human labor. A.I. is going to change that.

Spying and surveillance are different but related things. If I hired a private detective to spy on you, that detective could hide a bug in your home or car, tap your phone, and listen to what you said. At the end, I would get a report of all the conversations you had and the contents of those conversations. If I hired that same private detective to put you under surveillance, I would get a different report: where you went, whom you talked to, what you purchased, what you did.

Before the internet, putting someone under surveillance was expensive and time-consuming. You had to manually follow someone around, noting where they went, whom they talked to, what they purchased, what they did, and what they read. That world is forever gone. Our phones track our locations. Credit cards track our purchases. Apps track whom we talk to, and e-readers know what we read. Computers collect data about what we’re doing on them, and as both storage and processing have become cheaper, that data is increasingly saved and used. What was manual and individual has become bulk and mass. Surveillance has become the business model of the internet, and there’s no reasonable way for us to opt out of it.

Spying is another matter. It has long been possible to tap someone’s phone or put a bug in their home and/or car, but those things still require someone to listen to and make sense of the conversations. Yes, spyware companies like NSO Group help the government hack into people’s phones, but someone still has to sort through all the conversations. And governments like China could censor social media posts based on particular words or phrases, but that was coarse and easy to bypass. Spying is limited by the need for human labor.

A.I. is about to change that. Summarization is something a modern generative A.I. system does well. Give it an hourlong meeting, and it will return a one-page summary of what was said. Ask it to search through millions of conversations and organize them by topic, and it’ll do that. Want to know who is talking about what? It’ll tell you.

The technologies aren’t perfect; some of them are pretty primitive. They miss things that are important. They get other things wrong. But so do humans. And, unlike humans, A.I. tools can be replicated by the millions and are improving at astonishing rates. They’ll get better next year, and even better the year after that. We are about to enter the era of mass spying.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Schneier, Bruce.“The Internet Enabled Mass Surveillance. A.I. Will Enable Mass Spying..” Slate, December 4, 2023.

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