QR codes replace service staff as pandemic spurs automation in US

American workers in manufacturing plants and distribution centres have long worried that their employers would find ways to replace them with robots and artificial intelligence, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought that threat to service workers, too. Businesses are increasingly turning to automated tools for customer service tasks long done by low-wage staff. But rather than robots, it is the ubiquitous QR matrix bar codes that are replacing humans [Editor’s note: the link may be paywalled]. Financial Times:
Many restaurants have begun to experiment with QR codes and order management systems such as Toast that allow diners to order food to their table from their phones instead of with human servers. Grocery stores have increased their investments in self-checkout kiosks that replace human cashiers, and more convenience stores including Circle K are experimenting with the computer vision technology pioneered by Amazon Go to allow customers to make purchases without standing in a checkout line at all. The shifts mean that some of the 1.7m leisure and hospitality jobs and 270,000 retail jobs the US economy has lost since its February 2020 high are unlikely to return.

SA govt trials home quarantine app with facial recognition, GPS tracking

The South Australian government is set to trial a smartphone app that uses facial recognition and geolocation to confirm a person’s location during home quarantine.

The government will trial the app known as Home Quarantine SA with 50 residents who are required to undertake 14 days of quarantine on return from interstate locations this week.

The app will allow trial participants to “confirm their location with regular check-ins” through a live face check-in feature that uses facial recognition and location verification.

It gives individuals 15 minutes to respond to the random location verification requests at their registered location.

YouTube Stars Were Offered Money to Spread Vaccine Misinformation

“A mysterious marketing agency secretly offered to pay social media stars to spread disinformation about Covid-19 vaccines,” reports the BBC.

“Their plan failed when the influencers went public about the attempt to recruit them.”
An influencer marketing agency called Fazze offered to pay [Mirko Drotschmann, a German YouTuber and journalist] to promote what it said was leaked information that suggested the death rate among people who had the Pfizer vaccine was almost three times that of the AstraZeneca jab. The information provided wasn’t true. It quickly became apparent to Mirko that he was being asked to spread disinformation to undermine public confidence in vaccines in the middle of a pandemic. “I was shocked,” says Mirko “then I was curious, what’s behind all that?” In France, science YouTuber Léo Grasset received a similar offer. The agency offered him 2000 euros if he would take part.

Fazze said it was acting for a client who wished to remain anonymous…

Both Léo and Mirko were appalled by the false claims. They pretended to be interested in order to try to find out more and were provided with detailed instructions about what they should say in their videos. In stilted English, the brief instructed them to “Act like you have the passion and interest in this topic.” It told them not to mention the video had a sponsor — and instead pretend they were spontaneously giving advice out of concern for their viewers… Since Léo and Mirko blew the whistle at least four other influencers in France and Germany have gone public to reveal they also rejected Fazze’s attempts to recruit them.

But German journalist, Daniel Laufer, has identified two influencers who may have taken up the offer.

But who’s behind the mysterious influencer marketing agency?
Fazze is a part of AdNow, which is a digital marketing company, registered in both Russia and the UK. The BBC has made multiple attempts to contact AdNow by phone, email and even a letter couriered to their Moscow headquarters, but they have not responded. Eventually we managed to contact Ewan Tolladay, one of two directors of the British arm of AdNow – who lives in Durham. Mr. Tolladay said he had very little to do with Fazze — which he said was a joint venture between his fellow director — a Russian man called Stanislav Fesenko — and another person whose identity he didn’t know… Both the French and German authorities have launched investigations into Fazze’s approaches to influencers. But the identity of the agency’s mystery client remains unclear.

There has been speculation about the Russian connections to this scandal and the interests of the Russian state in promoting its own vaccine — Sputnik V.

French YouTuber Léo Grasset believes we’ll see more attempts to manipulate public opinion, especially young people — apparently because it’s incredibly easy.

“Just spend the same money on TikTok creators, YouTube creators,” they tell the BBC. “The whole ecosystem is perfectly built for maximum efficiency of disinformation right now.”

The Pandemic Has Created a Middle Class Private Jet Boom

While the commercial airline industry has been largely grounded following various global lockdowns — with outbound international travel from the UK set to be banned on Thursday — private aviation has soared among new customers. Many of them are families. Once the preserve of millionaires and A-listers, business planes have been taken up by holidaying households looking to make quick, Covid-secure getaways. “We’ve flown more families than ever,” explains Adam Twidell, CEO of jet booker PrivateFly. “Those who can afford have thought, ‘This is the time to use wealth to travel safely.'” Despite aviation’s ongoing gloom, Twidell says that PrivateFly is actually up over this time last year. Much of that has been driven by family bookings over the summer holidays, with 20 per cent of all passengers being children.

The fresh influx of jet-setting customers has also included the ‘pet set.’ Recent animals on board PrivateFly planes have included dogs, parrots and snakes — while one recent flight saw a family fly with 13 cats. “Those who might have gone on holiday with friends are now doing so with extended family,” Twidell says. It was in March, as most of the planet went into lockdown, that private aviation boomed. As more and more commercial airliners ceased routes around the world, families began booking business planes to rush them home. Alain Leboursier, managing director of Swiss charter LunaJets, says that such repatriation missions meant business tripled. “Our best period of the last decade came in the final ten days of March. We had flights around the world taking people home.” With the new lockdown imminent, and much of Europe effectively closing its borders, Leboursier believes there’ll be a further spike in demand. “However, it won’t be as dramatic as what we saw in spring because local lockdowns and restrictions aren’t as strict.” But any surge in numbers will be very welcome in business aviation. “Usually, between September and Christmas, it’s just corporate flights,” adds Leboursier. “Those clients aren’t flying at all now.”

New Age communities are driving QAnon conspiracy theories in Brazil

These spiritual, pseudoscientific groups are domesticating QAnon narratives for non-American audiences.

QAnon emerged in the US, but its plasticity makes it easily adaptable in a Brazilian context. President Bolsonaro — a Trump-worshipping, coronavirus-skeptic — rode to power on the promise of ridding Brazil of corruption, leftism, and other evils, and whose legion of highly-connected supporters vehemently distrust traditional media.

It isn’t surprising that QAnon terms would eventually be slapped onto protest signs at a pro-Bolsonaro gathering in Copacabana beach. What is perhaps somewhat surprising is the name of one YouTube channel, written on one of the signs amid a list of must-follow QAnon YouTubers: “Ensinamentos da era de Aquário,” or “Teachings of the age of Aquarius” in Portuguese.

Although that name doesn’t immediately signal QAnon lore, this is one of the largest YouTube channels that openly supports QAnon in Brazil. Its owner, Luciano Cesa, has amassed a legion of 200,000 subscribers in less than two years, and his success signals a growing interest — especially among Brazilian New Age groups — in the movement’s beliefs.

These spiritual and pseudoscientific communities, which encompasses a range of practices such as shamanism, crystal healing, reiki, yoga, and numerology, are playing a prominent role in introducing and domesticating QAnon narratives to non-American audiences.

New Age communities have a few things in common with QAnon members, who often describe themselves as “researchers” open to new truths. QAnon conspiracies are often presented in incomplete tidbits — collections of loose terms and concepts which potential adherents are invited to explore on their own, and which they decontextualize and remix as they share their findings.

The idea of a secret government that rules everything from the shadows is also rife in New Age circles. “Those are communities that distrust institutions, such as conventional science and dogmatic religions,” Campanha says, “so, I can definitely see this culture easily transferring themselves to those conspiracy ideas, with politicians who portray themselves as “outsiders,” such as Trump and Bolsonaro, being seen as antagonists against this shadow government.”

New Age communities, international in scope, provide a safe avenue for QAnon theories to spread from the US and adapt to contexts such as Brazil, while tapping into an audience that may or may not be part of Bolsonaro’s main support base.

In fact, it is precisely communities who claim to be apolitical, such as New Agers, who are especially vulnerable to the influence of fascist movements.

On August 20, at a White House briefing, Donald Trump was asked directly about QAnon for the first time. “I don’t know much about them, except that they like me very much,” he said. When a reporter followed up with an explanation that the crux of the theory was that the US President was fighting a cabal elite of child abusers, he answered: “I don’t know about that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing?”

Trump’s clever reply — which simultaneously evaded the question while appearing to express support for the movement — highlighted the challenges that both reporters and society at large face when confronting conspiracy theorists.

London Installed AI Cameras To Monitor Social Distancing, Lockdown Restrictions

Artificial Intelligence cameras are being used in London and other cities in the UK to monitor social distancing. The sensors were initially developed by Vivacity to track the flow of traffic, cyclists and pedestrians and monitor how roads are being used. But when the country went into lockdown in March, Vivacity added on an extra feature to the AI scanners so it could register the distance between pedestrians. This data is shared in a monthly report with the Government.

Vivacity Labs said they have more than 1,000 sensors installed across the UK, in cities including London, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham. Chief Operating Officer at Vivacity Peter Mildon told BBC Radio Kent on Wednesday that the data is potentially “useful for informing policy decisions” regarding lockdown measures. He stressed that the cameras are not CCTV but that they operate as a data collating device rather than a camera that stores footage. “They are not recording any footage, they are not streaming any footage and no one is actually watching it,” he said.

Mr Mildon added: “We’re creating a set of statistics on how behavior is changing in terms of how people are staying close together or apart. And it is that data that is then useful for informing policy decisions on whether there should be a two meter rule or a one meter plus rule or whether local lockdown measures are having the impact they are envisioned to.”

These Shocking Charts Show Just How Much Richer Billionaires Have Gotten Since Covid

The world’s wealthiest individuals have become even richer during the coronavirus pandemic as the prices of financial assets have been supported by widespread policy intervention while employment and wages, well, not so much.

The richest five billionaires, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Elon Musk, saw a 59% increase in their total wealth, from $358 billion to $569 billion.

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

Fearing Coronavirus, a Michigan College is Tracking Its Students With a Flawed App

Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, said in June it would allow its nearly 1,500 students to return to campus for the new academic year starting in August. Lectures would be limited in size and the semester would finish by Thanksgiving rather than December. The school said it would test both staff and students upon their arrival to campus and throughout the academic year. But less than two weeks before students began arriving on campus, the school announced it would require them to download and install a contact-tracing app called Aura, which it says will help it tackle any coronavirus outbreak on campus.

There’s a catch. The app is designed to track students’ real-time locations around the clock, and there is no way to opt out. The Aura app lets the school know when a student tests positive for COVID-19. It also comes with a contact-tracing feature that alerts students when they have come into close proximity with a person who tested positive for the virus. But the feature requires constant access to the student’s real-time location, which the college says is necessary to track the spread of any exposure. The school’s mandatory use of the app sparked privacy concerns and prompted parents to launch a petition to make using the app optional.