Anyone Who Is Not Us

Depending on your disposition and your situation, knowing about anyone in your vicinity who is not part of your in-group can be important.

I converted to Orthodox Judaism and I learned that there are some mysteries in this way of life that are only available to those in the dance, and this dance can only soar if everyone around you is Orthodox and in the dance.

I don’t see anything inherently bad about such an interest in safety. It’s usually adaptive, meaning it helps us survive. People and animals usually feel safest when they are with their own kind.

Some people, however, find this creepy. They want us to transcend our base needs for in-groups and out-groups. In some situations, this elevated universalist response is the more adaptive response. Other times, it is the more dangerous response.

The situation is king.

Wired magazine reports in its May 2023 issue:

A video showed Hikvision cameras pointed at tourists climbing the thousands of stone steps leading to the famous peak. Piano music played as a narrator explained, in Mandarin with English subtitles, that the cameras were there “to identify all visitors to ensure the safety of all.” The video cut to a shot of a computer screen, and Honovich hit pause. He saw a zoomed-in view of one visitor’s face. Below it was data that the camera’s AI had inferred. Honovich downloaded the video and took screenshots of the computer screen, for safekeeping.

Later, with the help of a translator, he scrutinized every bit of text on that screen. One set of characters, the translator explained, suggested each visitor was automatically sorted into categories: age, sex, wearing glasses, smiling. When Honovich pointed at the fifth category and asked, “What’s this?” the translator replied, “minority.” Honovich pressed: “Are you sure?” The translator confirmed there was no other way to read it.

Honovich was shocked. In his many years in the industry, he’d never seen a surveillance company set out to automatically detect racial minorities. The feature seemed completely unethical to him, and he immediately wondered how China might use it against the Uyghur people, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group, in the province of Xinjiang. Honovich had seen reports trickling out in the West of Uyghurs being subjected to constrictive surveillance and mass detentions. Clicking through the AI Summit website, Honovich couldn’t tell whether Chinese authorities were using this technology to oppress minorities, but he saw that danger coalescing.

…IN DECEMBER 2020, an IPVM employee made a blockbuster discovery. The reporter, who keeps his identity secret because of the harassment some IPVMers get for their controversial work, discovered that Huawei and a Chinese AI unicorn called Megvii had tested a literal “Uyghur alarm”: The system used AI to analyze people’s faces, and if it determined that a passerby was Uyghur, it could send an alert to authorities. At the time, Huawei wasn’t publicly known to be participating in China’s racial surveillance system. IPVM partnered with two Washington Post tech reporters to get the information out.

The Post published an article on the same day as IPVM and credited the security outfit with the discovery. Dozens of publications picked up the story. For the first time, an IPVM report was national news. Reacting to the Post report, US senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska said, “While Huawei sells contracts with fancy talk about connecting people around the world, they’re working to send Uyghurs to torture camps in China.” Senator Marco Rubio from Florida tweeted, “The sick people at @Huawei developing software to recognize the faces of #Uighur Muslims & alert the communist government of #China.”

If you are freaking out about your security, why would you not want to know about any stranger entering your turf?

Sometimes safety is the number one priority for a group, and that frequently means a readiness to oppress others. Nothing good happens with individuals or groups until they feel safe.

I’ve been watching the great Netflix documentary series Chimp Empire. It says that chimps are out closest animal ancestor. They’re apparently highly territorial, always looking to expand their territory while keeping close watching on outsiders intruding. When a group catches a chimp from another group alone, they kill him. When rival gangs of chimps meet, the weaker group runs away.

Pork Pie is a chimp in the main group who gets isolated and slaughtered in the heart of his own group’s territory. I suspect he would have appreciated surveillance technology that notified him that out-group chimps were near. If he had something like that, he might still be alive.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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