As facial recognition use grows, so do privacy fears

Above, a facial recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference in November 2017, which showcases artificial intelligence, deep learning, virtual reality and autonomous machines. (AFP)
Updated 08 July 2018
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As facial recognition use grows, so do privacy fears

  • Facial recognition is playing an increasing role in law enforcement, border security and other purposes in the US and around the world
  • While more accurate facial recognition is generally welcomed, civil liberties groups say specific policy safeguards should be in place

WASHINGTON: The unique features of your face can allow you to unlock your new iPhone, access your bank account or even “smile to pay” for some goods and services.
The same technology, using algorithms generated by a facial scan, can allow law enforcement to find a wanted person in a crowd or match the image of someone in police custody to a database of known offenders.
Facial recognition came into play last month when a suspect arrested for a shooting at a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, refused to cooperate with police and could not immediately be identified using fingerprints.
“We would have been much longer in identifying him and being able to push forward in the investigation without that system,” said Anne Arundel County police chief Timothy Altomare.
Facial recognition is playing an increasing role in law enforcement, border security and other purposes in the US and around the world.
While most observers acknowledge the merits of some uses of this biometric identification, the technology evokes fears of a “Big Brother” surveillance state.
Heightening those concerns are studies showing facial recognition may not always be accurate, especially for people of color.
A 2016 Georgetown University study found that one in two American adults, or 117 million people, are in facial recognition databases with few rules on how these systems may be accessed.
A growing fear for civil liberties activists is that law enforcement will deploy facial recognition in “real time” through drones, body cameras and dash cams.
“The real concern is police on patrol identifying law-abiding Americans at will with body cameras,” said Matthew Feeney, specialist in emerging technologies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
“This technology is of course improving but it’s not as accurate as science fiction films would make you think.”
China is at the forefront of facial recognition, using the technology to fine traffic violators and “shame” jaywalkers, with at least one arrest of a criminal suspect.
Clare Garvie, lead author of the 2016 Georgetown study, said that in the past two years, “facial recognition has been deployed in a more widespread and aggressive manner” in the US, including for border security and at least one international airport.
News that Amazon had begun deploying its Rekognition software to police departments sparked a wave of protests from employees and activists calling on the tech giant to stay away from law enforcement applications.
Amazon is one of dozens of tech firms involved in facial recognition. Microsoft for example uses facial recognition for US border security, and the US state of Maryland uses technology from German-based Cognitec and Japanese tech firm NEC.
Amazon maintains that it does not conduct surveillance or provide any data to law enforcement, but simply enables them to match images to those in its databases.
The tech giant also claims its facial recognition system can help reunite lost or abducted children with their families and stem human trafficking.
Nonetheless, some say facial recognition should not be deployed by law enforcement because of the potential for errors and abuse.
That was an argument made by Brian Brackeen, founder and the chief executive officer of the facial recognition software developer Kairos.
“As the black chief executive of a software company developing facial recognition services, I have a personal connection to the technology, both culturally and socially,” Brackeen said in a blog post on TechCrunch.
“Facial recognition-powered government surveillance is an extraordinary invasion of the privacy of all citizens — and a slippery slope to losing control of our identities altogether.”
The Georgetown study found facial recognition algorithms were five to 10 percent less accurate on African Americans than Caucasians.
Microsoft announced last month it had made significant improvements for facial recognition “across skin tones” and genders.
IBM meanwhile said it was launching a large-scale study “to improve the understanding of bias in facial analysis.”
While more accurate facial recognition is generally welcomed, civil liberties groups say specific policy safeguards should be in place.
In 2015, several consumer groups dropped out of a government-private initiative to develop standards for facial recognition use, claiming the process was unlikely to develop sufficient privacy protections.
Cato’s Feeney said a meaningful move would be to “purge these databases of anyone who isn’t currently incarcerated or wanted for violent crime.”
Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the implications for police surveillance are significant.
“An inaccurate system will implicate people for crimes they did not commit. And it will shift the burden onto defendants to show they are not who the system says they are,” Lynch said in a report earlier this year.
Lynch said there are unique risks of breach or misuse of this data, because “we can’t change our faces.”
Evan Selinger, a philosophy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says facial recognition is too dangerous for law enforcement.
“It’s an ideal tool for oppressive surveillance,” Selinger said in a blog post.
“It poses such a severe threat in the hands of law enforcement that the problem cannot be contained by imposing procedural safeguards.”


Jeff Bezos plans to charge at least $200,000 for space rides -sources

Updated 14 July 2018
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Jeff Bezos plans to charge at least $200,000 for space rides -sources

SEATTLE: Jeff Bezos’ rocket company plans to charge passengers about $200,000 to $300,000 for its first trips into space next year, two people familiar with its plans told Reuters.
Potential customers and the aerospace industry have been eager to learn the cost of a ticket on Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle, to find out if it is affordable and whether the company can generate enough demand to make a profit on space tourism.
Executives at the company, started by Amazon.com Inc. founder Bezos in 2000, told a business conference last month they planned test flights with passengers on the New Shepard soon, and to start selling tickets next year.
The company, based about 20 miles (32 km) south of Seattle, has made public the general design of the vehicle — comprising a launch rocket and detachable passenger capsule — but has been tight-lipped on production status and ticket prices.
Blue Origin representatives did not respond to requests for comment on its programs and pricing strategy. Bezos said in May ticket prices had not yet been decided.
One Blue Origin employee with first-hand knowledge of the pricing plan said the company will start selling tickets in the range of about $200,000 to $300,000. A second employee said tickets would cost a minimum of $200,000. They both spoke on condition of anonymity as the pricing strategy is confidential.
The New Shepard is designed to autonomously fly six passengers more than 62 miles (100 km) above Earth into suborbital space, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before the pressurized capsule returns to earth under parachutes.
The capsule features six observation windows Blue Origin says are nearly three times as tall as those on a Boeing Co. 747 jetliner.
Blue Origin has completed eight test flights of the vertical take-off and landing New Shepard from its launch pad in Texas, but none with passengers aboard. Two flights have included a test dummy the company calls “Mannequin Skywalker.”
The company will do the first test in space of its capsule escape system, which propels the crew to safety should the booster explode, “within weeks,” one of the employees said.
SMALL STEP FOR A MAN
Blue Origin, whose Latin motto means “step by step, ferociously,” is working toward making civilian space flight an important niche in the global space economy, alongside satellite services and government exploration projects, already worth over $300 billion a year.
Bezos, the world’s richest person with a fortune of about $112 billion, has competition from fellow billionaires Richard Branson and Elon Musk, Tesla Inc’s chief executive.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic says it has sold about 650 tickets aboard its own planned space voyages, but has not set out a date for flights to start. The company is charging $250,000 per ticket, in line with Blue Origin’s proposed pricing.
SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002, says its ultimate goal is to enable people to live on other planets.
All three are looking to slash the cost of spaceflight by developing reusable spacecraft, meaning prices for passengers and payloads should drop as launch frequency increases.
While Blue Origin has not disclosed its per-flight operating costs, Teal Group aerospace analyst Marco Caceres estimated each flight could cost the firm about $10 million. With six passengers per trip, that would mean losing millions of dollars per launch, at least initially.
Three sources said Blue’s first passengers are likely to include its own employees, though the company has not selected them yet.