The 124 deputies of the Flemish Parliament (Belgium) have a new concern. The direct of its plenary sessions is broadcast on YouTube And since Monday a machine is watching them: if they pick up their mobile, it sends them an open message on Twitter. A message that everyone can see and that says: “Dear distracted [nombre en Twitter]Please focus ”, along with a short video of your“ sin ”on the account with the original name of the project, The Flemish Scrollers (The flamingos that do scroll). The program is the work of a Belgian visual artist, Dries Depoorter, who specializes in privacy, mass surveillance and discovering dystopian uses of artificial intelligence.
“I have always liked to show the risk of new technology and how we feel about it,” says Depoorter in a Twitter message to questions from EL PAÍS. The main objective of Depoorter is to teach how easy it is to control citizens. In responses to the tweet, one of the predominant notes is the fear that something like this will be established as a control. “I wonder if this kind of thing will alert politicians to the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition,” says Andrew Stroehlein, director for European media at Human Rights Watch.
Depoorter’s software detects when a politician picks up and looks at his cell phone from his seat, but not what he is looking at on the phone. With a little analysis of how you move your fingers and where they look, it would be relatively easy to guess which application they are using. “I’m working on it,” says Depoorter. “Twitter and Instagram have a top-down movement. It is the next step and it is possible to do it but I must try it. Writing can also be a clue, ”he adds. Of course finding who plays from the seat would be even easier. Belgium also experienced in 2019 a case similar to that of Celia Villalobos with Candy Crush in 2015: in this case the bored Belgian deputy was playing Angry Birds.
The Depoorter project cannot yet be taken to other countries with this same code because the artist has not opened it “yet”, he says. It has taken him relatively little time, he says, because he had some of the code already written for previous projects. Here facial recognition is relatively straightforward. Depoorter has loaded the public faces of the deputies into the system from different angles. The software discards, as seen in the image that heads the text, tablets and computers in the hands of the deputies because it presumes that they are rather work tools. “In theory you can take notes on a mobile too,” admits Depoorter.
It is also not clear that it works perfectly in its initial version. The project began on Monday and detected at least six politicians with their mobile phones, but only four have their corresponding tweet. Depoorter explained that when there was no session the program would go back to previous sessions to accumulate clueless politicians, but at the moment it does not. To questions from this newspaper, he said that “it will come out” and that “tomorrow [por este miércoles] there is a session again and it will start again ”. But for now he is still nailed in the four initial tweets.
Although the project ultimately works well, the system will not be able to create a rigorous classification of more distracted deputies because the shot is not always the same, so it cannot be guaranteed that everyone who looks at the cell phone will be hunted. Such programs that detect behavior and faces would be easy to convert to detect students who are trying to copy or thieves who are about to take something from the supermarket. Their attitude, if they are not extremely professional, would easily give them away to a machine.
Beyond the performance, The Flemish Scrollers project is another stage in Depoorter’s artistic career. Some of his past projects are good examples of how relatively easy it would be today to find dystopian realities. Between 2018 and 2021 it has carried out a project called “paparazzi surveillance” where he uploaded the faces of 200,000 celebrities from around the world and analyzed the images of a thousand private cameras without protection to see when those people appeared in stores or streets. It was the idea of the paparazzi carried around the world.
One of his latest projects is Die with me, an application that connects mobiles that have less than 5% battery left and their owners share the pain of those last moments of uncertainty when disconnected.
Many other people have taken the last initiative as well as the troll that it really is: politicians are public servants and the least they should do is pay attention to what they tell each other in Parliament. In this case, the Flemish Parliament is one of the three regional hemicycles in Belgium.
Despite the dystopia of the project, the part about “how we feel about this new technology” is interesting, in the words of Depoorter. Seeing the reaction of hundreds of people on Twitter, the conclusion is that these things are wonderful as long as they affect others. Perhaps the largest type of response to Depoorter’s original tweet was joking variants of this phrase: “Something like this is what we need in my country to control politicians.”