Archives September 2, 2020

Police Across Canada Are Using Predictive Policing Algorithms, Report Finds

Police across Canada are increasingly using controversial algorithms to predict where crimes could occur, who might go missing, and to help them determine where they should patrol, despite fundamental human rights concerns, a new report has found.

To Surveil and Predict: A Human Rights Analysis of Algorithmic Policing in Canada is the result of a joint investigation by the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) and Citizen Lab. It details how, in the words of the report’s authors, “law enforcement agencies across Canada have started to use, procure, develop, or test a variety of algorithmic policing methods,” with potentially dire consequences for civil liberties, privacy and other Charter rights, the authors warn.

The report breaks down how police are using or considering the use of algorithms for several purposes including predictive policing, which uses historical police data to predict where crime will occur in the future. Right now in Canada, police are using algorithms to analyze data about individuals to predict who might go missing, with the goal of one day using the technology in other areas of the criminal justice system. Some police services are using algorithms to automate the mass collection and analysis of public data, including social media posts, and to apply facial recognition to existing mugshot databases for investigative purposes. “Algorithmic policing technologies are present or under consideration throughout Canada in the forms of both predictive policing and algorithmic surveillance tools.” the report reads

Facial Recognition Designed To Detect Around Face Masks Is Failing, Study Finds

Many facial recognition companies have claimed they can identify people with pinpoint accuracy even while they’re wearing face masks, but the latest results from a study show that the coverings are dramatically increasing error rates.

In an update Tuesday, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology looked at 41 facial recognition algorithms submitted after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in mid-March. Many of these algorithms were designed with face masks in mind, and claimed that they were still able to accurately identify people, even when half of their face was covered. In July, NIST released a report noting that face masks were thwarting regular facial recognition algorithms, with error rates ranging from 5% to 50%. NIST is widely considered the leading authority on facial recognition accuracy testing, and expected algorithms to improve on identifying people in face masks. That day has yet to come, as every algorithm experienced at least marginal increases in error rates once masks came into the picture. While some algorithms still had accuracy overall, like Chinese facial recognition company Dahua’s algorithm error rate going from 0.3% without masks to 6% with masks, others had error rates that increased up to 99%.

Rank One, a facial recognition provider used in cities like Detroit, had an error rate of 0.6% without masks, and a 34.5% error rate once masks were digitally applied. In May, the company started offering “periocular recognition,” which claimed to be able to identify people just off their eyes and nose. TrueFace, which is used in schools and on Air Force bases, saw its algorithm error rate go from 0.9% to 34.8% once masks were added. The company’s CEO, Shaun Moore, told CNN on Aug. 12 that its researchers were working on a better algorithm for detecting beyond mas

Facebook Threatens To Cut Off Australians From Sharing News

The threat escalates an antitrust battle between Facebook and the Australian government, which wants the social-media giant and Alphabet’s Google to compensate publishers for the value they provide to their platforms. The legislation still needs to be approved by Australia’s parliament. Under the proposal, an arbitration panel would decide how much the technology companies must pay publishers if the two sides can’t agree. Facebook said in a blog posting Monday that the proposal is unfair and would allow publishers to charge any price they want. If the legislation becomes law, the company says it will take the unprecedented step of preventing Australians from sharing news on Facebook and Instagram.

Clearview AI CEO Says ‘Over 2,400 Police Agencies’ Are Using Its Facial Recognition Software

More than 2,400 police agencies have entered contracts with Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition firm, according to comments made by Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That in an interview with Jason Calacanis on YouTube.

The hour-long interview references an investigation by The New York Times published in January, which detailed how Clearview AI scraped data from sites including Facebook, YouTube, and Venmo to build its database. The scale of that database and the methods used to construct it were already controversial before the summer of protests against police violence. “It’s an honor to be at the center of the debate now and talk about privacy,” Ton-That says in the interview, going on to call the Times investigation “actually extremely fair.” “Since then, there’s been a lot of controversy, but fundamentally, this is such a great tool for society,” Ton-That says.

Ton-That also gave a few more details on how the business runs. Clearview is paid depending on how many licenses a client adds, among other factors, but Ton-That describes the licenses as “pretty inexpensive, compared to what’s come previously” in his interview. Ton-That ballparks Clearview’s fees as $2,000 a year for each officer with access. According to Ton-That, Clearview AI is primarily used by detectives.

Clearview AI was used at least once to identify protesters in Miami.

Facial recognition was also used by the New York Police Department to arrest an activist during the Black Lives Matter uprising this summer. According to a BuzzFeed News report in February, NYPD was at the time the largest user of Clearview AI — where more than 30 officers had Clearview accounts.

Bill Gates’ Nuclear Venture Plans Reactor To Complement Solar, Wind Power Boom

A nuclear energy venture founded by Bill Gates said Thursday it hopes to build small advanced nuclear power stations that can store electricity to supplement grids increasingly supplied by intermittent sources like solar and wind power. Reuters reports:
The effort is part of the billionaire philanthropist’s push to help fight climate change, and is targeted at helping utilities slash their emissions of planet-warming gases without undermining grid reliability. TerraPower LLC, which Gates founded 14 years ago, and its partner GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, plan to commercialize stations called Natrium in the United States later this decade, TerraPower’s President and Chief Executive Chris Levesque said.

Levesque said the companies are seeking additional funding from private partners and the U.S. Energy Department, and that the project has the support of PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, along with Energy Northwest and Duke Energy. If successful, the plan is to build the plants in the United States and abroad, Levesque said. By 2050 “we would see hundreds of these reactors around the world, solving multiple different energy needs,” Levesque said. The 345-megawatt plants would be cooled by liquid sodium and cost about $1 billion each.

The new plants […] are designed to complement a renewable power because they will store the reactor power in tanks of molten salt during days when the grid is well supplied. The nuclear power could be used later when solar and wind power are low due to weather conditions. Molten salt power storage has been used at thermal solar plants in the past, but leaks have plagued some of the projects. Levesque said the Natrium design would provide more consistent temperatures than a solar plant, resulting in less wear and tear.

Microsoft Flight Simulator Players Are Flying Into Hurricane Laura

Microsoft Flight Simulator players have turned into virtual stormchasers this week, hunting down Hurricane Laura as it approached the US Gulf Coast. While Texas and Louisiana brace for what is being described as an “unsurvivable storm surge,” the real-time weather inside Microsoft Flight Simulator is providing a surreal spectacle for players.

Virtual strormchasers have gathered in the skies above the Gulf of Mexico to fly directly into Hurricane Laura. The results demonstrate the incredible realism in Microsoft Flight Simulator, just as Hurricane Laura threatens catastrophic damage in the real world. Players have been flying directly through the eye of the storm, around the outer edges, and even so far up that planes have frozen over and needed to be de-iced. The virtual views have allowed players to track Hurricane Laura during the moments before it made landfall as a category 4 hurricane with 150mph winds. A YouTube user also captured the virtual experience of flying through Hurricane Laura, showing just how well the storm cloud formations are depicted in the game.

US Tech Stocks Are Now Worth More Than the Entire European Stock Market

The dominance of major U.S. tech stocks in recent years has pushed the sector past another milestone as it is now more valuable than the entire European stock market, according to Bank of America Global Research. The firm said in a note that this is the first time the market cap of the U.S. tech sector, at $9.1 trillion, exceeds Europe, which including the U.K. and Switzerland is now at $8.9 trillion. For reference, the firm said that in 2007, Europe was four times the size of U.S. technology stocks.

Tech pulling ahead of the European continent comes as the U.S. market has become increasingly concentrated in mega-cap tech stocks, worrying some market strategists. The five biggest tech names — Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook — accounted for 17.5% of the S&P 500 in January, and the rotation into tech during the coronavirus pandemic has pushed that number well above 20%. Consumer tech goliath Apple is worth more than $2 trillion by itself. The run for Amazon might be the most stunning of the group. The company has been growing into a dominant force in e-commerce since the 1990s, but the explosion of the cloud computing industry has helped its stock surge over the past decade. Its share price was about 20 times higher on Thursday than it was in August 2010.

Elon Musk Shows Neuralink Brain Link Working In a Pig

With a pig named Gertrude, Elon Musk demonstrated his startup Neuralink’s technology to build a digital link between brains and computers. A wireless link from the Neuralink device showed the pig’s activity activity as it snuffled around a pen on stage Friday night.

The demonstration shows the the technology to be significantly closer to delivering on Musk’s radical ambitions than during a 2019 product debut, when Neuralink only showed photos of a rat with a Neuralink connected via a USB-C port. It’s still far from reality, but Musk said the US Food and Drug Administration in July granted approval for “breakthrough device” testing. Musk also showed a second-generation device that’s more compact and that fits into a small cavity hollowed out of a hole in a skull. “It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said of the device. It communicates with brain cells with 1,024 thin electrodes that penetrate within brain c

Massive US Spy Satellite May ‘Hoover Up’ Cellphone Calls

NROL-44 is a huge signals intelligence, or SIGINT, satellite, says David Baker, a former NASA scientist who worked on Apollo and Shuttle missions, has written numerous books, including U.S. Spy Satellites and is editor of SpaceFlight magazine. “SIGINT satellites are the core of national government, military security satellites. They are massive things for which no private company has any purpose,” says Baker… “It weighs more than five tons. It has a huge parabolic antenna which unfolds to a diameter of more than 100 meters in space, and it will go into an equatorial plane of Earth at a distance of about 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles),” says Baker…

Spy satellites “hoover up” of hundreds of thousands of cell phone calls or scour the dark web for terrorist activity. “The move from wired communication to digital and wireless is a godsend to governments because you can’t cut into wires from a satellite, but you can literally pick up cell phone towers which are radiating this stuff into the atmosphere. It takes a massive antenna, but you’re able to sit over one spot and listen to all the communications traffic,” says Baker…

Some people worry about congestion in space, or satellites bumping into each other, and the threat of a collision causing space debris that could damage other satellites or knock out communications networks. But that may have benefits, too — little bits of spy satellite can hide in all that mess and connect wirelessly to create a “virtual satellite,” says Baker. “There are sleeper satellites which look like debris. You launch all the parts separately and disperse them into various orbits. So, you would have sensors on one bit, an amplifier on another bit, a processor on another, and they’ll be orbiting relatively immersed in space debris.”

“Space debris is very good for the space defense industry,” says Baker, “because the more there is, the more you can hide in it.”

Your Browsing History Can Uniquely Identify You

Researchers from Mozilla report in a study that web browsing histories (the lists of user visited websites) are uniquely identifying users (PDF). In their study that was the case for 99% of users. Treating web browsing histories like fingerprints, the researchers analysed how the users can be reidentified just based on the coarsened list of user-visited websites.

In doing so they upheld and confirmed a previous study from 2012, prompting the author of the original study to say that web browsing histories are now personal data subject to privacy regulations like the GDPR.

Sensitivity of web browsing history data questions the laws allowing ISPs to sell web browsing histories.

The now-vindicated author of the 2012 study added this emphatic note in their blog post. “Web browsing histories are personal data. Deal with it.”

Cory Doctorow’s New Book Explains ‘How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism’

If we’re going to break Big Tech’s death grip on our digital lives, we’re going to have to fight monopolies. That may sound pretty mundane and old-fashioned, something out of the New Deal era, while ending the use of automated behavioral modification feels like the plotline of a really cool cyberpunk novel… But trustbusters once strode the nation, brandishing law books, terrorizing robber barons, and shattering the illusion of monopolies’ all-powerful grip on our society. The trustbusting era could not begin until we found the political will — until the people convinced politicians they’d have their backs when they went up against the richest, most powerful men in the world. Could we find that political will again…?

That’s the good news: With a little bit of work and a little bit of coalition building, we have more than enough political will to break up Big Tech and every other concentrated industry besides. First we take Facebook, then we take AT&T/WarnerMedia. But here’s the bad news: Much of what we’re doing to tame Big Tech instead of breaking up the big companies also forecloses on the possibility of breaking them up later… Allowing the platforms to grow to their present size has given them a dominance that is nearly insurmountable — deputizing them with public duties to redress the pathologies created by their size makes it virtually impossible to reduce that size. Lather, rinse, repeat: If the platforms don’t get smaller, they will get larger, and as they get larger, they will create more problems, which will give rise to more public duties for the companies, which will make them bigger still.

We can work to fix the internet by breaking up Big Tech and depriving them of monopoly profits, or we can work to fix Big Tech by making them spend their monopoly profits on governance. But we can’t do both. We have to choose between a vibrant, open internet or a dominated, monopolized internet commanded by Big Tech giants that we struggle with constantly to get them to behave themselves…

Big Tech wired together a planetary, species-wide nervous system that, with the proper reforms and course corrections, is capable of seeing us through the existential challenge of our species and planet. Now it’s up to us to seize the means of computation, putting that electronic nervous system under democratic, accountable control.

With “free, fair, and open tech” we could then tackle our other urgent problems “from climate change to social change” — all with collective action, Doctorow argues. And “The internet is how we will recruit people to fight those fights, and how we will coordinate their labor.

“Tech is not a substitute for democratic accountability, the rule of law, fairness, or stability — but it’s a means to achieve these things.”

Amazon Drivers Are Hanging Smartphones in Trees To Get More Work

A strange phenomenon has emerged near Amazon.com delivery stations and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago suburbs: smartphones dangling from trees. Contract delivery drivers are putting them there to get a jump on rivals seeking orders.

Someone places several devices in a tree located close to the station where deliveries originate. Drivers in on the plot then sync their own phones with the ones in the tree and wait nearby for an order pickup. The reason for the odd placement, according to experts and people with direct knowledge of Amazon’s operations, is to take advantage of the handsets’ proximity to the station, combined with software that constantly monitors Amazon’s dispatch network, to get a split-second jump on competing drivers. That drivers resort to such extreme methods is emblematic of the ferocious competition for work in a pandemic-ravaged U.S. economy suffering from double-digit unemployment. Much the way milliseconds can mean millions to hedge funds using robotraders, a smartphone perched in a tree can be the key to getting a $15 delivery route before someone else. Drivers have been posting photos and videos on social-media chat rooms to try to figure out what technology is being used to receive orders faster than those lacking the advantage.

Facebook and Google Serve As Vectors For Misinformation While Hobbling Local Journalism and Collecting Taxpayer Subsidies, Group Says

Facebook and Google are hollowing out local communities by serving as vectors for misinformation while hobbling local journalism and collecting taxpayer subsidies, a new paper from progressive think tank the American Economic Liberties Project charges. Both companies cite benefits their platforms offer small businesses as a key defense against critiques of their size and power. The paper, dated Aug. 30, is sure to presage further scrutiny of the impact they’ve had on local communities.

The brief, by Pat Garofalo, the group’s director of state and local policy, argues that: Google doesn’t do enough to protect against fraud, allowing scammers to get their own numbers and websites listed on Google to the detriment of legitimate businesses. Facebook, by design, boosts shoddy and sensationalist content, crowding out legitimate local news and information, all as it and Google have come to dominate the local advertising market that was long the lifeblood of community journalism. Both have sucked up potentially billions in local taxpayer dollars via tax breaks as well as subsidies and discounts on utilities they’ve gotten in exchange for building data centers. Garofalo recommends remedies including more antitrust enforcement at the federal and state levels and an end to preferential treatment by states and localities, either voluntarily or under force of law.

Google Search and Dark Patterns

Previously, the search engine had marked paid results with the word “Ad” in a green box, tucked beneath the headline next to a matching green display URL. Now, all of a sudden, the “Ad” and the URL shifted above the headline, and both were rendered in discreet black; the box disappeared. The organic search results underwent a similar makeover, only with a new favicon next to the URL instead of the word “Ad.” The result was a general smoothing: Ads looked like not-ads. Not-ads looked like ads. This was not Google’s first time fiddling with the search results interface. In fact, it had done so quite regularly over the last 13 years, as handily laid out in a timeline from the news site Search Engine Land. Each iteration whittled away the distinction between paid and unpaid content that much more. Most changes went relatively unnoticed, internet residents accepting the creep like the apocryphal frog in a slowly boiling pot.

But in January, amid rising antitrust drumbeats and general exhaustion with Big Tech, people noticed. Interface designers, marketers, and Google users alike decried the change, saying it made paid results practically indistinguishable from those that Google’s search algorithm served up organically. The phrase that came up most often: “dark pattern,” a blanket term coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull to describe manipulative design elements that benefit companies over their users. That a small design tweak could inspire so much backlash speaks to the profound influence Google and other ubiquitous platforms have — and the responsibility that status confers to them. “Google and Facebook shape realities,” says Kat Zhou, a product designer who has created a framework and toolkit to help promote ethical design. “Students and professors turn to Google for their research. Folks turn to Facebook for political news. Communities turn to Google for Covid-19 updates. In some sense, Google and Facebook have become arbiters of the truth. That’s particularly scary when you factor in their business models, which often incentivize blurring the line between news and advertisements.”

Google’s not the only search engine to blur this line. If anything, Bing is even more opaque, sneaking the “Ad” disclosure under the header, with only a faint outline to draw attention. […] But Google has around 92 percent of global search marketshare. It effectively is online search. Dark patterns are all too common online in general, and January wasn’t the first time people accused Google of deploying them. In June of 2018, a blistering report from the Norwegian Consumer Council found that Google and Facebook both used specific interface choices to strip away user privacy at almost every turn. The study details how both platforms implemented the least privacy-friendly options by default, consistently “nudged” users toward giving away more of their data, and more. It paints a portrait of a system designed to befuddle users into complacency. […] That confusion reached its apex a few months later, when an Associated Press investigation found that disabling Location History on your smartphone did not, in fact, stop Google from collecting your location in all instances.

‘Divinity Consultants’ are Now Designing Sacred Rituals for Some Corporations

“They go by different names: ritual consultants, sacred designers, soul-centered advertisers,” reports the New York Times, describing “a new corporate clergy” working as “divinity consultants” and “designing sacred rituals for corporations.”

They have degrees from divinity schools. Their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America. In simpler times, divinity schools sent their graduates out to lead congregations or conduct academic research. Now there is a more office-bound calling: the spiritual consultant. Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies — some for-profit, some not — with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist.

They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design. Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith. “We’ve seen brands enter the political space,” said Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. Citing a Vice report, he added: “The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality….”

Ezra Bookman founded Ritualist, which describes itself as “a boutique consultancy transforming companies and communities through the art of ritual,” last year in Brooklyn. He has come up with rituals for small firms for events like the successful completion of a project — or, if one fails, a funeral. “How do we help people process the grief when a project fails and help them to move on from it?” Mr. Bookman said. Messages on the start-up’s Instagram feed read like a kind of menu for companies who want to buy operational rites a la carte: “A ritual for purchasing your domain name (aka your little plot of virtual land up in the clouds).” “A ritual for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.”

The articles notes there are problems when combining the corporate with the religious.

For one thing, “It’s hard to exhort workers to give their professional activities transcendental meaning when, at the same time, those workers can be terminated.”

Smart Dust Is Coming. Are You Ready?

“Imagine a world where wireless devices are as small as a grain of salt,” writes futurist Bernard Marr in Forbes, describing a technology being researched by companies like IBM, General Electric, and Cisco. “These miniaturized devices have sensors, cameras and communication mechanisms to transmit the data they collect back to a base in order to process.

“Today, you no longer have to imagine it: microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), often called motes, are real and they very well could be coming to a neighborhood near you. Whether this fact excites or strikes fear in you it’s good to know what it’s all about.”
Outfitted with miniature sensors, MEMS can detect everything from light to vibrations to temperature. With an incredible amount of power packed into its small size, MEMS combine sensing, an autonomous power supply, computing and wireless communication in a space that is typically only a few millimeters in volume. With such a small size, these devices can stay suspended in an environment just like a particle of dust. They can:

– Collect data including acceleration, stress, pressure, humidity, sound and more from sensors

– Process the data with what amounts to an onboard computer system

– Store the data in memory

– Wirelessly communicate the data to the cloud, a base or other MEMs

Since the components that make up these devices are 3D printed as one piece on a commercially available 3D printer, an incredible amount of complexity can be handled and some previous manufacturing barriers that restricted how small you can make things were overcome. The optical lenses that are created for these miniaturized sensors can achieve the finest quality images.

The potential of smart dust to collect information about any environment in incredible detail could impact plenty of things in a variety of industries from safety to compliance to productivity. It’s like multiplying the internet of things technology millions or billions of times over.