National Review Op-Ed: Keep Artificial Intelligence out of Government Surveillance

In 1975, the late senator Frank Church said that “the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. . . . That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything. . . . There would be no place to hide.”

These words came as Senator Church led the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee. The Church Committee’s 1976 final report exposed numerous secret federal-government programs that violated the constitutional rights of American citizens it deemed to be threats to existing social and political order. These programs surveilled and targeted individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and domestic organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as infiltrated movements to incite rivalries and discredit the leaders associated with them. 

Nearly 50 years later, Senator Church’s ominous warning that the government could weaponize technology against the American people reads more like a premonition, which is why I reminded my Senate colleagues of the former member’s words in a committee hearing last week. What Church could only imagine, is today a reality. Technology has progressed to the point that “no place to hide” is actually now a real-life concern.

In recent decades, journalists and whistleblowers exposed examples of our government leveraging emerging technologies to violate the privacy and civil liberties of its citizens. For example, intelligence agencies conducted surveillance of video-game users by collecting data on the contents of communications between players. The Department of Homeland Security tracked the live locations of individuals and groups participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. The Drug Enforcement Administration conducted “covert surveillance” of people protesting the death of George Floyd.

And it’s only getting worse. Just last month, the ACLU acknowledged that “the Biden administration has been quietly deploying and expanding programs that surveil what people say on social media, using tools that allow agents and analysts to invisibly monitor the vast amount of protected speech that occurs online.”

And how are they doing it? Using artificial intelligence.

For years, federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the National Science Foundation, and the FBI, have been colluding with private organizations and social-media companies to combat what they deemed to be “disinformation.” The purpose, so they claimed, was to combat foreign malign influence.

But in reality, the government wasn’t suppressing foreign “misinformation.” It was working to censor domestic speech by Americans. In Tablet magazine, writer Jacob Siegel defined it best: “Disinformation is both the name of the crime and the means of covering it up; a weapon that doubles as a disguise.”

Since 2020, the federal government has awarded over 500 contracts and grants related to “misinformation” or “disinformation.” While the grant awardees and their proprietary AI and machine-learning technologies differ, their goals are consistent: to “mine” the internet, identify conversations indicative of “harmful” narratives, track those “threats,” and develop countermeasures before messages go viral.

One NSF-funded company’s mission statement claims that “social media is being manipulated and ideas are being spread uncontrollably online.” The solution it provides? An automatic controversy-detection algorithm to help identify things that are “potentially opinion-shifting” to make communication “more productive and less dangerous.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we witnessed the accelerated use of AI technologies to monitor and suppress public debate online on issues such as natural immunity, masks, and the origins of the virus.

Multiple federal agencies, including the DoD and the State Department, funded automated disinformation-detection technologies designed to monitor and suppress public debate on issues such as vaccines and the origins of Covid-19.

In Siegel’s fantastic yet haunting account of the last decade of U.S. government domestic-censorship efforts, he argued that “disinformation, now and for all time, is whatever they say it is. That is not a sign that the concept is being misused or corrupted; it is the precise functioning of a totalitarian system.”

The United States is engaging in the same activities for which we criticize other countries. Unlike China and North Korea, however, the U.S. government attempts to conceal its involvement using private entities as front companies to do its dirty work. But make no mistake, the intent is the same: control the narrative, eliminate dissent, and retain power.

This should terrify all Americans. The government is using your hard-earned tax dollars to surveil and censor your protected speech. Artificial intelligence is only going to make it easier for the government to do this and harder to detect. Indeed, in the ideal world of, say, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, AI would be used to combat “political polarization” and prevent certain views from being “magnified by digital channels.” We got a preview of this during the Covid-19 pandemic, when government and social-media companies suppressed and censored people and views deemed inaccurate but later proven to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, those who dared to state that natural immunity might confer equal or better protection than vaccines against Covid-19 were censored on public platforms. We now know this to be true. That’s no model for how public conversations should be conducted.

This should not be a partisan issue. We must get to the bottom of how the federal government uses AI to violate the privacy and civil liberties of the American people before it’s too late.

You can read the op-ed HERE.