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Activists Turn Facial Recognition Tools Against the Police

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In early September, the City Council in Portland, Ore., met virtually to consider sweeping legislation outlawing the use of facial recognition technology. The bills would not only bar the police from using it to unmask protesters and individuals captured in surveillance imagery; they would also prevent companies and a variety of other organizations from using the software to identify an unknown person.

During the time for public comments, a local man, Christopher Howell, said he had concerns about a blanket ban. He gave a surprising reason.

“I am involved with developing facial recognition to in fact use on Portland police officers, since they are not identifying themselves to the public,” Mr. Howell said. Over the summer, with the city seized by demonstrations against police violence, leaders of the department had told uniformed officers that they could tape over their name. Mr. Howell wanted to know: Would his use of facial recognition technology become illegal?

Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, told Mr. Howell that his project was “a little creepy,” but a lawyer for the city clarified that the bills would not apply to individuals. The Council then passed the legislation in a unanimous vote.

Mr. Howell was offended by Mr. Wheeler’s characterization of his project but relieved he could keep working on it. “There’s a lot of excessive force here in Portland,” he said in a phone interview. “Knowing who the officers are seems like a baseline.”

Mr. Howell, 42, is a lifelong protester and self-taught coder; in graduate school, he started working with neural net technology, an artificial intelligence that learns to make decisions from data it is fed, such as images. He said that the police had tear-gassed him during a midday protest in June, and that he had begun researching how to build a facial recognition product that could defeat officers’ attempts to shield their identity.

“This was, you know, kind of a ‘shower thought’ moment for me, and just kind of an intersection of what I know how to do and what my current interests are,” he said. “Accountability is important. We need to know who is doing what, so we can deal with it.”

Mr. Howell is not alone in his pursuit. Law enforcement has used facial recognition to identify criminals, using photos from government databases or, through a company called Clearview AI, from the public internet. But now activists around the world are turning the process around and developing tools that can unmask law enforcement in cases of misconduct.

“It doesn’t surprise me in the least,” said Clare Garvie, a lawyer at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology. “I think some folks will say, ‘All’s fair in love and war,’ but it highlights the risk of developing this technology without thinking about its use in the hands of all possible actors.”

The authorities targeted so far have not been pleased. The New York Times reported in July 2019 that Colin Cheung, a protester in Hong Kong, had developed a tool to identify police officers using online photos of them. After he posted a video about the project on Facebook, he was arrested. Mr. Cheung ultimately abandoned the work.

ImagePaolo Cirio is a French artist. “It’s childish to try to stop me,” he said.
Credit…Ana Brigida for The New York Times

This month, the artist Paolo Cirio published photos of 4,000 faces of French police officers online for an exhibit called “Capture,” which he described as the first step in developing a facial recognition app. He collected the faces from 1,000 photos he had gathered from the internet and from photographers who attended protests in France. Mr. Cirio, 41, took the photos down after France’s interior minister threatened legal action but said he hoped to republish them.

“It’s about the privacy of everyone,” said Mr. Cirio, who believes facial recognition should be banned. “It’s childish to try to stop me, as an artist who is trying to raise the problem, instead of addressing the problem itself.”

Many police officers around the world cover their faces, in whole or in part, as captured in recent videos of police violence in Belarus. Last month, Andrew Maximov, a technologist from the country who is now based in Los Angeles, uploaded a video to YouTube that demonstrated how facial recognition technology could be used to digitally strip away the masks.

In the simulated footage, software matches masked officers to full images of officers taken from social media channels. The two images are then merged so the officers are shown in uniform, with their faces on display. It’s unclear if the matches are accurate. The video, which was reported earlier by a news site about Russia called Meduza, has been viewed more than one million times.

“For a while now, everyone was aware the big guys could use this to identify and oppress the little guys, but we’re now approaching the technological threshold where the little guys can do it to the big guys,” Mr. Maximov, 30, said. “It’s not just the loss of anonymity. It’s the threat of infamy.”

These activists say it has become relatively easy to build facial recognition tools thanks to off-the-shelf image recognition software that has been made available in recent years. In Portland, Mr. Howell used a Google-provided platform, TensorFlow, which helps people build machine-learning models.

“The technical process — I’m not inventing anything new,” he said. “The big problem here is getting quality images.”

Mr. Howell gathered thousands of images of Portland police officers from news articles and social media after finding their names on city websites. He also made a public records request for a roster of police officers, with their names and personnel numbers, but it was denied.

Facebook has been a particularly helpful source of images. “Here they all are at a barbecue or whatever, in uniform sometimes,” Mr. Howell said. “It’s few enough people that I can reasonably do it as an individual.”

Mr. Howell said his tool remained a work in progress and could recognize only about 20 percent of Portland’s police force. He hasn’t made it publicly available, but he said it had already helped a friend confirm an officer’s identity. He declined to provide more details.

Credit…Paolo Cirio

Derek Carmon, a public information officer at the Portland Police Bureau, said that “name tags were changed to personnel numbers during protests to help eliminate the doxxing of officers,” but that officers are required to wear name tags for “non-protest-related duties.” Mr. Carmon said people could file complaints using an officer’s personnel number. He declined to comment on Mr. Howell’s software.

Older attempts to identify police officers have relied on crowdsourcing. The news service ProPublica asks readers to identify officers in a series of videos of police violence. In 2016, an anti-surveillance group in Chicago, the Lucy Parsons Lab, started OpenOversight, a “public searchable database of law enforcement officers.” It asks people to upload photos of uniformed officers and match them to the officers’ names or badge numbers.

“We were careful about what information we were soliciting. We don’t want to encourage people to follow officers to playgrounds with their kids,” said Jennifer Helsby, OpenOversight’s lead developer. “It has resulted in officers being identified.”

For example, the database helped journalists at the Invisible Institute, a local news organization, identify Chicago officers who struck protesters with batons this summer, according to the institute’s director of public strategy, Maira Khwaja.

Photos of more than 1,000 officers have been uploaded to the site, Ms. Helsby said, adding that versions of the open-source database have been started in other cities, including Portland. That version is called Cops.Photo, and is one of the places from which Mr. Howell obtained identified photos of police officers.

Mr. Howell originally wanted to make his work publicly available, but is now concerned that distributing his tool to others would be illegal under the city’s new facial recognition laws, he said.

“I have sought some legal advice and will seek more,” Mr. Howell said. He described it as “unwise” to release an illegal facial recognition app because the police “are not going to appreciate it to begin with.”

“I’d be naïve not to be a little concerned about it,” he added. “But I think it’s worth doing.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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