April 15, 2024

Espionage has always been limited by the need for human labor. AI is going to change that.

Espionage and surveillance are different but related things. If I hired a private detective to spy on you, that detective could hide a microphone in your house or car, tap your phone, and listen to what you say. In the end, you would receive a report of all the conversations you had and the content of those conversations. If I hired that same private detective to put you under surveillance, I would get a different report: where you went, who you talked to, what you bought, what you did.

Before the Internet, putting someone under surveillance was expensive and time-consuming. You had to manually follow someone, observing where he went, who he talked to, what he bought, what he did and what he read. That world is gone forever. Our phones track our locations. Credit cards track our purchases. Apps track who we talk to and e-readers know what we read. Computers collect data about what we do on them, and as both storage and processing have become cheaper, that data is increasingly stored and used. What was manual and individual has become voluminous and massive. Surveillance has become the business model of the Internet and there is no reasonable way to exclude ourselves from it.

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

AI is about to change that. Summary is something a modern generative AI system does well. Give him a one-hour meeting and he’ll give you back a one-page summary of what was said. Ask it to search through millions of conversations and organize them by topic, and it will do just that. Do you want to know who is talking about what? He will tell you.

The technologies are not perfect; some of them are quite primitive. Things that are important are lost. They are wrong about other things. But so do humans. And unlike humans, AI tools can be replicated by the millions and are improving at an astonishing rate. They will get better next year and even better the year after that. We are about to enter the era of mass espionage.

Mass surveillance fundamentally changed the nature of surveillance. Because all data is saved, mass surveillance allows people to conduct surveillance backwards in time without even knowing who specifically they want to target. tell me where this person was last year. List all the red sedans they drove this walk in the last month. List all the people who purchased all the ingredients for a pressure cooker bomb in the past year. Find me all the pairs of phones that moved toward each other, turned off, and then turned back on an hour later as they moved away from each other (a sign of a secret meeting).

Similarly, mass espionage will change the nature of espionage. All data will be saved. Everything will be searchable and understandable on a massive scale. Tell me who has spoken about a particular topic over the past month and how discussions on that topic have evolved. Person A did something; check if someone told them to do it. Find everyone who is planning a crime, spreading a rumor, or planning to attend a political protest.

There is much more. To discover an organizational structure, look for someone who gives similar instructions to a group of people and then to all the people to whom they gave those instructions. To find people’s confidants, look at who they tell secrets to. You can track friendships and alliances as they are formed and broken, in complete detail. In short, you can know everything that everyone is talking about.

This spying is not limited to conversations on our phones or computers. Just as cameras everywhere fueled mass surveillance, microphones everywhere will fuel mass spying. Siri and Alexa and “Hey Google” are already always listening; the conversations simply haven’t been saved yet.

Knowing that they are under constant surveillance changes people’s behavior. They conform. They censor themselves, with the chilling effects that this entails. Surveillance facilitates social control and espionage will only make the situation worse. Governments around the world already use mass surveillance; They will also engage in mass espionage.

Corporations will spy on people. Mass surveillance ushered in the era of personalized ads; Mass espionage will boost that industry. Information about what people talk about, their moods, their secrets: it’s all trap for marketers looking for an advantage. The technology monopolies that currently keep us all under constant surveillance will not be able to resist collecting and using all that data.

In the early days of Gmail, Google talked about using people’s Gmail content to serve them personalized ads. The company stopped doing this, almost certainly because the keyword data it collected was so poor and therefore not useful for marketing purposes. That will soon change. Google may not be the first to spy on its users’ conversations, but once others do it they will not be able to resist. Your real customers (your advertisers) will demand it.

We could limit this ability. We could ban mass espionage. We could pass strict data privacy rules. But we have done nothing to limit mass surveillance. Why would espionage be something different?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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