Artificial Intelligence and Online Privacy: Blessing and a Curse | Hacker Noon

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a beautiful piece of technology made to seamlessly augment our everyday experience. It is widely utilized in everything starting from marketing to even traffic light moderation in cities like Pittsburg. However, swords have two edges and the AI is no different. There are a fair number of upsides as well as downsides that follow such technological advancements.

One way or another, the technology is moving too quickly while the education about the risks and safeguards that are in place are falling behind for the vast majority of the population. The whole situation is as much of a blessing for humankind as it is a curse.

In this article, we will be mainly discussing how the AI is being utilized, how the ease of processing data-enabled companies and government agencies to have power over online privacy, and how to stay careful of possible abuses of said power.

A Blessing

Have you ever noticed that every application lately has been asking your permission for personalized ads? These are advertisements from companies that are targeting you. However, how do they know what you may want? This is due to the hard work done by a good number of AIs. They are constantly sifting through and analyzing what you are looking at. Everything is being calculated like: for how long or what you are even messaging sometimes.

Do not be afraid though, they are not reading your secret messages. Reputable companies have these robots looking for some keywords in your conversation. For example, if you are speaking to your friend about bicycles the AI gets excited and offers you an ad from Specialized, Cube, or Ghost offering their brand new mountain bikes. This is how companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others make money. If the product is free – you are the product. In these cases, a product for marketing companies that pay hefty amounts to have their ads on one or all of these platforms.

AI in Everyday Life | The Good

The AI enhances user experience to totally new levels. Unfortunately, analyzing and sifting through huge masses of data is not something the human brain specializes in. To properly process a big chunk of data the companies have to hire a team of individuals. The whole ordeal can take hours, days, weeks, or even months depending on what they are trying to analyze and we are not even taking into consideration the financial expenses.

Even with the professionals, there are moments of subjective bias involved in the result. Humans also tend to flat out ignore or forget a good number of details. An AI though is a different case. Data processing is their specialization. It is something they love doing the most and are happy to continue doing until the end of time. The process is becoming more and more efficient the longer this process goes on. The whole point of artificial intelligence is the ability to enhance their capabilities by finding better and efficient ways to do the same task.

Banking, for example, is the one that has benefitted the most from an AI. As an example, most of the top banks now offer online financial advising. This is done by AIs on the starting level. These programs analyze your spending, give visualized charts, and help save money where possible.

Different exchanges like stock market, foreign exchange market (Forex, FX), cryptocurrency markets, etc. are using the AIs to predict where the market is going to move. Apart from this, the historic data is also always being summarized for personal and corporate use. As it was once said the future is nothing but a repetition of the past.

AI in Military | The Good

The military is very fond of the potential of AI. In 2018 the US announced that they will be implementing artificial intelligence in every branch where it is applicable. The AI is going to help the military in analyzing intelligence, making lightning-fast decisions, automatization of vehicles, weaponry, and logistics as a whole. It is worth noting that the US military is one of the prime places to develop such cutting edge development since they are showering in finances. In 2020 the US congress has approved as much as $718 billion for the Department of Defense out of which $927 million is going to be moving towards the AI and machine learning development.

It is worth noting that the technology has evolved quite a lot during the last decade. Although the good nature of this is debatable the idea that no military personnel has to risk their lives to gather information that can be done using a robot is a huge achievement.

AI in Cyber Security | The Good

Although technically doing cyber crimes is harder now since there are a bunch of protocols available to protect end-user from possible threats it’s also easier because there are a fair number of scripts available that automate very tiresome and complex processes.

Cybersecurity is related to several problems that experts have been trying to deal with as they go along. Once the corporate network becomes large the surface at which the attacks may proceed increases exponentially. This can be done either via breaching application security, network security, or basic social engineering. Today’s systems are protected using multilayer security systems. During the development, the software undergoes an intense testing phase to root out all of the possible hoops that hackers can use to exploit a vulnerability. After the product is finished, there are teams working day and night on enhancing, adding functionality, and patching previous problems. Once the code becomes big enough though the issues are extremely hard to cover and the IT teams have to prioritize some over the others. This is why some of the bugs in your favorite video games are not being patched out quickly and may stay forever if they aren’t game-breaking.

Companies usually build their infrastructure with their intranet protocols that are hiding all of the necessary information from unwelcome guests. However, this means that the network security aspect has to also be covered fully. This is done via firewalls, anti-virus and anti-malware software, data loss prevention, virtual private networks, etc. A good number of programs are written to alleviate this whole process. For example, behavioral analysis is almost solely done with artificial intelligence. This means that there is a software setting and gathering data about how certain individuals are acting while they are inside of the system. The moment there is a suspicious activity the AI either has the right to restrict access temporarily or straight up direct an IT specialist to take a closer look.

A Curse

Artificial Intelligence is a double-edged sword though. It is important to understand that there are a fair number of precautions that need to be taken before utilizing a service of your choice. It is important to know which company is pulling the strings. Your personal information can and will be utilized to gain more and more funds. However, some companies are going to tell you upfront and some won’t. National security agencies have been targeting these data-gathering companies for years already. Google for example has much more capacities to spy on people than a lot of developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries. The data that goes through their servers is a huge point of interest in a number of both good and bad people. Some of the companies are going to monetize on these offers selling out their collected data to the highest bidder. 

AI for Data Collection | The Bad

The European Union has enacted a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law for companies that are operating in the EU space. The GDPR regulates the acquisition of information from online customers. Numerous methods are utilized to achieve this goal. It can be anything from what we have already mentioned like robots skimming through the data that you freely share (like status updates, likes, etc.) or more hidden files designated for this very same purpose like cookies that you download from websites upon visit. There are different types of cookies, of course, but all of them can be utilized to gather data. This is why currently most of the websites are asking for your permission to use them. This is why it is recommended to check the cookie policy for a website that you frequently visit. For the ones that you don’t – just don’t allow cookies at all.

Most of the time cookies are used to enhance already existing websites. They are the sole purpose why it takes considerably less time to load pages once you’ve already visited them. However, some of these cookies (tracker cookies) are used to track your activity on the internet. This is not even limited to the website that you are using. For example, Facebook cookies get activated every time there is a company API being used. This means that every page that uses Facebook comments, likes, or other services automatically activate their cookies on your computer. This is why you can be commenting something on one website with Twitter addon and then get an ad centered around that very same topic on Twitter. Although I have not mentioned the AI here it is obvious that all of these processes are going through machine learning algorithms that process and dish out the results.

You cannot fully hide your activities on the internet though. People have utilized virtual machines to do different tasks, turned off all of the data collection options, used VPN, but the core idea is that the trail, even though very convoluted at this point, is still going to be leading towards you and it all depends on how badly someone or something wants to find you. Either way, you need to trust someone when you are using the internet.

Why Trust One Company Over the Other?

This leads us to one of the final topics of this article. Why should you trust specific developer companies and not others? 

Apart from the general reputation that company gets it’s important to understand that where the firm is based and takes orders from is a big deciding factor. For example, why are Chinese companies not trusted overal? There is a fair argument saying that if you don’t use TikTok due to concerns about Chinese agencies collecting your data you shouldn’t be using Instagram because the US national security departments will also be doing the same. However, things are not that straightforward. 

Apple vs FBI | A Case of Integrity

There have been cases where these agencies have demanded access to user data or even straight up requested to have a backdoor into every device. Apple’s dispute against the FBI in 2016 is a prime example of one such instance. To summarize in 2015 the FBI extracted iPhone 5C from a shooter who participated in a December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. They demanded Apple to unlock this device and Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, has kindly rejected this notion. The company has outlined the importance of preventing terrorism but they couldn’t just give out a backdoor to every iPhone to the FBI. This is in light of the situation that the US government, or the National Security Agency (NSA) in particular, was already outed to be spying on the citizens by a famous whistleblower and founder of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden.

Apple took this case to court where they used an argument that their customer privacy would be in vain if such instance comes to happen. The FBI didn’t just want one iPhone to be unlocked but they wanted a software backdoor into every past, current, and future smartphone from Apple. The court has ruled in favor of Apple and the case was closed.

This is a happy ending to this scenario. However, we have to keep in mind that the US constitution gives companies an ability to argue such cases in court. Whereas if such thing happens in China, Russia, or any less-democratic country the companies simply do not have the power to go to court and defend their case. 

Company Origin Matters

The political nature of the nation is also extremely important. All of the middle to large-sized corporations in China are under the direct supervision of the Chinese Communist Party and share the information with their national security agencies. 

Tencent, for example, which is a Chinese company that has developed most of the popular applications like TikTok, WeChat, and has numerous companies under its umbrella-like Riot Games (League of Legends, Valorant, Teamfight Tactics, Legends of Runterra) and Epic Games does not and cannot uphold such standards. More importantly, the CEO and founder father if the company Ma Huateng is a prominent member of the CCP as well as one of the most influential persons across the world. The argument can be made that TikTok doesn’t keep US customer data on Chinese servers but this is a soft barrier. A company can transfer this data for as much as they like and there are a good number of triggers that the Chinese government can pull to make them do their bidding.

A department of this very same company called Tencent Keen Security Lab has researched the security features of Tesla car’s autopilot function. They messed around with sensors and found ways to make the AI go haywire. Tencent is also a 5% stakeholder of Tesla company. This is important information to keep in mind.

Conclusion

The 21st century is a period of technological wonders. Things that were only available in SciFi movies and books are slowly coming to life. While technology is integrating itself into our daily lives it is important to start learning about security aspects as well as the technology that is being utilized. Being picky is not bad when it comes to the usage of the internet. It is strongly encouraged by security professionals across the world. While the digital world may seem like it’s separate from our real lives. The reality stands that it is an integral part and as real as the physical one.

The usage of an AI is making it possible to enlarge operations to scales unseen before. There are some positive sides like ad campaigns but also negative ones like surveillance systems working against consumers. This is all dependent on who’s driving the car and we, the users, can decide which cars to ride and who will be the driver. 

This article is designated to highlight some of the uses of AI and how it augments our lives. The core idea is that if users become knowledgable about the subject we can pick and choose which companies to trust. In a capitalist market, consumer trust drives income and the companies will act in any way necessary to keep their user bases.

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