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

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.”


Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

In this Tuesday, July 20, 2010 file photo, former Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov speaks to the media before a reception at the U.S. Ambassador's Spaso House residence in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
Updated 12 October 2019

Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

  • NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death

MOSCOW: Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago — and who nearly didn’t make it back into his space capsule — has died in Moscow at 85.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website Friday but gave no cause for his death. Leonov had health issues for several years, according to Russia media.
Showing just how much of a space pioneer Leonov was, NASA broke into its live televised coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov’s death.
“A tribute to Leonov as today is a spacewalk,” Mission Control in Houston said.
Leonov — described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No. 11 — was an icon both in his country as well as in the US He was such a legend that the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his “2010” sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday sent his condolences to Leonov’s family, calling him a “true pioneer, a strong and heroic person.”
“Infinitely committed to his vocation, he left a truly legendary mark in the history of space exploration and in the history of our country,” Putin said on the Kremlin’s website.
Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family.
The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even when he flew into space, and took colored pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 to draw.
That mission was the first one between the Soviet Union and the United States and was carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international cooperation seen aboard the current International Space Station.
But Leonov staked his place in space history ten years earlier, on March 18, 1965, when he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule secured by a tether.
“I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” the cosmonaut recalled years later. “I was mesmerized by the stars. They were everywhere — up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”
Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-wracking, according to details of the exploit that only became public decades later.
His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to vent oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch.
Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first US spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.
Leonov might have become the Soviet Union’s first moonwalker, in fact, had his country’s lunar-landing effort not been canceled in the wake of Apollo 11’s triumphant moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.
On his second trip into space ten years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19.
The cosmonaut was well known for his humor. Once the US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in orbit around Earth on July, 17, 1975, Leonov and his Russian crewmate, Valeri Kubasov, welcomed the three US astronauts — their Cold War rivals — with canned borscht disguised as Stolichnaya vodka and suggested a toast.
“When we sat at the table, they said: ‘Why, that’s not possible,’” Leonov recalled in 2005. “We insisted, saying that according to our tradition, we must drink before work. That worked, they opened it and drank (the borscht) and were caught by surprise.”
The cosmonaut turned 85 in May. Several days before that, two Russian crewmembers on the International Space Station ventured into open space on a planned spacewalk, carrying Leonov’s picture with them to pay tribute to the space legend. They said “Happy Birthday!” to Leonov before opening the hatch and venturing out.
Leonov’s modern-day successor, Oleg Kononenko, who was one of the two Russians on that spacewalk, told Rossiya-24 television on Friday that Leonov had tuned in to hear their congratulations from space.
“We were going to stop by Alexei Arkhipovich (Leonov) after our return and give him our space souvenirs, but you see it wasn’t meant to be,” Kononenko said.
When his crew returned to earth at the end of June, Leonov was already unwell.
Kononenko spoke fondly of the Soviet space pioneer, saying he was a frequent guest at send-off ceremonies for space crews in Star City and at the cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
“We had this tradition that he would give cosmonauts pep talks before they board the spacecraft,” Kononenko said. “We all looked forward to that, always thought about it and always wanted Leonov to be the one to send us off into space.”
Messages of condolences poured from around the globe.
NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death.
“His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible,” NASA said on Twitter.
“One of the finest people I have ever known,” former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted on Friday. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”
Russian space fans were bringing flowers to his monument Friday on the memorial alley in honor of Russia’s cosmonauts in Moscow.
Leonov, who will be buried on Tuesday at a military memorial cemetery outside Moscow, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren.