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Privacy Advocates Concerned About Google AI and Pentagon Drone Surveillance

by Derek Gilna

Tech behemoth Google has signed a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense (“DoD”) to apply its artificial intelligence technology (“AI”) to improve the recognition and targeting ability of its 1,100-strong drone fleet, raising concerns that the technology might be used domestically for surveillance of the U.S. population. Many privacy experts have expressed deep skepticism that the government and the courts have the ability to safeguard the constitutionally protected privacy rights of ordinary citizens.

A 2017 Pentagon memo reveals that “Project Maven” was designed to accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning, “turn the enormous volume of data available to DoD into actionable intelligence and insights at speed,” and improve drone targeting.

Google is performing the algorithmic warfare work through a company called ECS Federal, LLC, in Northern Virginia.

Google spokespersons acknowledged privacy concerns, stating, “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”

According to Center for New American Security adjunct fellow Gregory C. Allen, the project has developed rapidly and has already been used in the Middle East to target ISIS, all without any publicity. “The developers had access to the end-users very early on in the process. They recognized that [with] AI systems … you had to understand what your end-user was going to do with them.... The military has an awful lot of experts in analyzing drone imagery: ‘These are the parts of my job I hate, here’s what I’d like to automate.’ There was this iterative development process that was very familiar in the commercial software world, but unfamiliar in the defense world.”

There is no question that the U.S. has impressive intelligence-gathering capabilities, but it does not appear that the nation’s lawmakers or judges have made the connection between this technology and the potential threat to America’s rights to privacy.

Haven’t we seen this all before, with police departments and other government agencies on both the state and federal level surreptitiously obtaining warrantless access to cell phone records, GPS tracking data, and Stingray cell tower spoofing to access cellphone location data? What about the stonewalling of these same agencies when their methods are exposed and privacy advocates and defense attorneys attempt to discover whether constitutionally protected rights have been compromised? With this latest Google-DoD partnership, the need for the legal system to catch up with technology is more urgent than ever. 


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