New surveillance systems catch terrorists based on body language… and potentially autistics too…

One thing I like to do is go out on walks. I like being outside, especially so because I live in a suburb that sits about ten miles outside of downtown Denver which is right on the edge of a more rural area. This means I can get outside, and other than the distant sound of a passing car or an airplane flying overhead into DIA, it’s fairly quite except for the sounds of nature. The summer means rustling leaves, birds chirping, croaking frogs when you get close enough to one of various water sources, and the distinctive sounds of various Orthopteran insects such as the click of katydids, buzz of cicadas, chirping of crickets, and drone of grasshoppers. The winter is more still, almost pristine, in its quiet. Either one is incredibly grounding and relaxing, and I have decided that alone time outside is important for my functioning. I explore, take pictures, sometimes I’ll listen to music. In the summer I’ll look for interesting wildlife such as foxes, owls, coyotes, and a plethora of beautiful insects (I’ve heard rumors of deer and even a bear from neighbors, but have never glanced these animals myself). I’ll watch the sun set as dragonflies hawk for mosquitoes overhead. Any time of year I’ll find a path on the outskirts of the neighborhood and skip and spin all the way down the path, because no one can see me and make judgments there.

The picture I took that day of the friend I made. Unfortunately I broke an amateur rule of photography and shot into the sun, so the horse is kinda dark in the shot.

Last February, I decided I would take a walk along one of my usual paths. It was a warm February day with highs in the 70s, and there was a cold front coming in the next day, so I decided to take advantage of it (despite what some think, Colorado winters are not consistently cold and snowy. Colorado weather is anything but consistent, meaning our winters usually look like a cycle of a week warmth followed by a week of cold and a snow storm). I began on my route. If you take the right path to the edge of the neighborhood, you’ll hit an opening in the fence behind which is a grove of cottonwood trees. There’s a hill with a set of decommissioned railroad tracks running across the top of the hill. I came to this location, climbed up over the hill, crossed the railroad tracks, went down the other side of the hill, and found myself in one of my favorite locations: a little secluded area at the edge of a few rural properties. The owners pasture their horses in the open space behind a low wire fence. If you come up to the fence, the horses will usually come up to you so you can pet them. I like to go there and pet the horses when they come up, and that’s what I did. I pet the horse, spoke softly to it for a bit, and then snapped a picture. Sometimes I’ll follow the railroad tracks about 1/4 mile further South, and come across another property with several peacocks being kept on it (believe me, you’ll hear them long before you see them)! I decided against doing that, however, and so I walked away from the horses and back into the neighborhood. I took a route back by my old elementary school and walked on the sidewalk back to my house, taking a few pictures here and there, but ultimately not doing much else.

This doesn’t sound too terrible to you, does it? I was just on a walk in my neighborhood, not causing any trouble or doing anything wrong. People take walks all the time and nobody thinks anything about it.

Well, I’m autistic, so I guess I don’t get that privilege.

The police showed up at my door 15 minutes after I had gotten home. Apparently someone had called the police on a teenager, me, who was “acting weird” while walking through the neighborhood and taking pictures. Nothing ever came of this, as taking a walk in a public place is not illegal, and neither is taking pictures of trees and clouds and horses.

What was so suspicious about me? Well, as I’ve already stated (and should be pretty obvious given the blog you’re on), I have autism, which means my brain interprets incoming sensory information in different ways, and as such tells my body to do things slightly differently than what other people’s would. My facial expressions, tone of voice, and especially my body language do not mean what they might mean for other people. (So, unless you’re also autistic or are my mom, don’t try to “read” me, it will just cause problems for the both of us).

So, whoever called the police may have misread my body language and interpreted it as something nefarious. Of course, I didn’t have any bad intentions at all, nor was I doing anything bad. I was just taking a walk.

Or, alternatively, perhaps whoever called mistook some other mannerism as a sign of something bad. Maybe I was swinging my arms, or walking in some strange fashion, or I was scripting to myself, or something else. I have some inhibitions, and so I tend to do less of this when I’m in the direct presence of another person. But, if this is not the case, I’ll do stuff like this and not even notice.

Either way, I think this is good proof that awareness, and more importantly, acceptance, is needed in the world of the fact that people may communicate differently, and so you shouldn’t jump to conclusions based off of just a single thing you see.

This incident upset me a lot, and I’m still a bit shaken by it. I get anxious to go on my walks now because I’m worried someone else is going to call the cops or confront me or something. This post is the first time I’ve really said anything about this incident in any in depth way.

Having had this personal experience, there’s an article I read that sincerely frightened me: “Crime-predicting A.I. isn’t science fiction. It’s about to roll out in India.”

Basically, the article discusses how India is going to start using new artificial intelligence programs with its surveillance systems. These A.I.s will take the people it’s viewing and and analyze their body language, facial expressions, etc. and use this to determine whether or not they have nefarious intentions or are planning to commit a crime. Police are then notified to stop this would-be “criminal.” The article states “[The software tries] to identify terrorists by monitoring people in real-time, looking for so-called micro-expressions — minuscule twitches or mannerisms that can belie a person’s nefarious intentions.”

Having just described my experience on my walk, think for a minute about the implications of this technology for autistic people who have different body language than most other people.

What happens if this system identifies an autistic man riding the bus as a “terrorist” because his micro expressions are different than most other people’s? It’s not because he’s a terrorist, it’s because he’s autistic and so his body language is read as “threatening” when it’s not. At that point, this security system becomes like the neighbor who called the police on me, misidentifying something innocuous as something suspicious. Except, this neighbor has a direct line to the police, and it’s report is framed as if the person it’s reporting is an identified terrorist.

Two white security cameras mounted on a black pole with a blue, cloudless sky in the background.

I’m not sure what India plans to do when it “identifies” a terrorist through body language. Add them to a watch-list? Get the police to talk to them? Arrest them? Can you charge someone with a crime they might commit? What safety measures are in place to ensure that a false-positive doesn’t have a bad run-in with the law? And, with any of these scenarios, with autistic and other disabled people being likely to be false-positives, this seems a bit like profiling based on disability. And it would be hard to justify this in the name of safety, as I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that autistic people are more common than terrorists (and developmentally disabled people, like autistic people, are five times less likely to commit violent crimes).

I hope what you can understand from all this is that you should be more understanding before you jump to conclusions based on the look someone has on their face, or the way their walking, or whatever else (I’m honestly not 100% sure I know what neurotypicals are looking at). Also, this is an important thing to consider when monitoring a population to stop crime. What you may think is nefarious body language may be completely innocuous when your talking about a person with neurological differences. I think a wise course of action is to inform the law enforcement using this software, and broader law enforcement in general, that you can’t make spot on 100% judgments from body language or expressions with all people. Or, better yet, continuously work on the A.I. to reduce the change of false positives. How exactly you go about giving this information, I have no idea. But it needs to be done or else autistic people in India, and eventually the rest of the world, may find themselves in trouble every time they go out in public.

4 thoughts on “New surveillance systems catch terrorists based on body language… and potentially autistics too…

  1. Quincy,

    Obviously it’s a shame when innocent people are criminalised for things which are part of their neurology and culture.

    one other way A.I. could work is that it sees through the masks and camouflages.

    I hope Indian Autistics are involved in this project. And are in law enforcement too. I think that would be an important safeguard.

    And I live in a place where there’s inconsistent weather too. Eight seasons in one day.

    Liked by 2 people

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