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Archive for the category “government”

I will be wrong (I think), but no one will notice

I derive a perverse glee from identifying instances in which I was wrong – for example, my prediction at the beginning of the football season that if any team in the NFC East did well, it would be the New York Giants. As it turns out, my Washington (team name that cannot be mentioned in polite company redacted) came out on top in the NFC East…for what that’s worth.

Over the last few years, I have felt that as jobs disappear during the current technological change, new jobs will appear. As I noted in a recent post, not everyone shares this view.

If I am wrong and Tad Donaghe is right, future generations will work less and will therefore have more idle time…

Well, Donaghe isn’t the only one that believes that many jobs will be lost. In fact, Rob Atkinson paints a rather dire future for those who want to work:

In fact, these new technologies are so awesome and amazing that they won’t replace most jobs; they will replace all jobs, save one. That job will be held by Zhang Wei, who is now a 15-year-old boy studying computer science at his local high school in Nanjing, China. He will invent the best artificial intelligence system ever and then run the company that puts all other companies out of business.

However, not all will go well for Zhang Wei:

“Well, on the one hand, it will be really cool having an annual income of 150 quadrillion yuan, but it will really suck that I will have to be the one person on the planet who is working when all my friends are out drinking.”

But after that…well, you have to read Atkinson’s article. And yes, it’s satirical. I think.

Incidentally, regarding that prior post of mine in which I talked about essentials not changing, Jim Ulvog has contributed another example: “Compare a successful siege by the Roman Empire to a nuclear war.”

The anonymity of the crowd – a new concept

In my day job, I spend a considerable amount of time monitoring public reaction to the use of biometric technologies. One subset of that is the reaction to the use of facial recognition in retail environments.

This Consumer Reports article provides an excellent introduction to the issues involved. I could say all sorts of things about the statements in the article – after all, this is my day job – but I will concentrate on one topic that would be interesting to the tymshft reader.

One can legitimately ask – what’s the difference between a bouncer staring out onto the street to look for known troublemakers, and a facial recognition camera doing the same thing? Some argue that there is a huge difference, because the camera and the software can do things that no mere human can do.

Here’s how the Consumer Reports article explained the power of the camera:

More importantly, facial recognition has the potential to erode the anonymity of the crowd, the specific type of privacy you experience when you stride through a public space, near home or on vacation, and refreshingly, no one knows your name. Marketers already can see every article we read online; do we need to let them record every shop window we gaze through?

The anonymity of the crowd. The freedom to walk through a city without having your every move be tracked. A freedom that has existed since the dawn of time.

Not.

During the Industrial Revolution, many people migrated to cities, and cities became larger and larger. The people who left villages where everyone knew their name found themselves in cities with tens of thousands of people or more – places where they truly could be anonymous. (As an aside, these new cities had to deal with crimes committed by unknown people, which caused a few people to develop ways to identify criminals by their physical characteristics – the ancestors to our facial recognition systems of today.)

But back in their home towns, there was no such anonymity. If Nigel was peering in a shopkeeper’s window, all of the neighbors knew about it. Even today, there are small towns in industrialized nations where everybody knows your name, and the concept of anonymity in the crowd simply does not exist.

Of course, society is always evolving, and perhaps the anonymity of the crowd is a good thing. But we have to remember that this is a relatively recent development.

Can robots issue citations? More importantly, can people issue citations?

Let’s start with the big disclosure – this post discusses red light camera systems, and the parent company (Morpho) of my employer (MorphoTrak) sells such systems. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that every city in the country has red light cameras at every intersection.

But let’s start with an even bigger disclosure – as the linked article notes, the city of Montclair, California used to have a red light camera system (not from Morpho). Back when this system was operational, it cited me for a red light violation. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that no city in the country has red light cameras at any intersection.

And let me also add that these opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any present or past employer or association with which I have been…um, associated.

Done with the disclosures. Now let’s move forward by moving back to my previous post about automated procurement. Within that post, I went off on a little tangent about self-driving cars.

Initial reactions to the idea [of self-driving cars] were – well, they were emotional. “You’re going to let an uncontrolled car just drive around on the streets where it may hit somebody?” Yet people began to reconsider this when they realized just how bad human drivers are, and how good the self-driving cars perform.

But in the same way that a self-driving car is an automated replacement for a human driver, a red light camera system is an automated replacement for a human police officer or traffic officer. In essence, the systems are programmed to track the locations of the automobiles and compare them against the status of the traffic light. In the case of my citation, I was provided with a set of pictures that showed that the light was red when my car entered the intersection.

Generally, such a system is programmed in the simplest way possible. Was the car violating traffic law, or was it in compliance with traffic law? Shades of gray are usually not programmed into the system.

Which brings us to San Mateo, California and what The Newspaper had to say about San Mateo’s contract with Redflex. The people who write The Newspaper do not like red light cameras – The Newspaper consistently publishes posts about people who vandalize red light cameras and speed cameras. But if The Newspaper doesn’t like red light cameras in general, it REALLY doesn’t like Redflex, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who tracks the red light camera industry in the United States. (Since the parent of my employer is a competitor of Redflex, I’ll just leave it at that.)

But if you boil away these impassioned feelings, and some of the issues surrounding traffic enforcement, there’s a really interesting issue buried within the arguments.

Last year, Redflex issued 4462 tickets worth $2.4 million. Sixty-three percent of these tickets went to drivers who made slow, rolling right hand turns.

Now opponents to red light cameras will look at this and say that advocates keep on talking about how traffic accidents result in death and dismemberment…and in actually, the majority of things caught by red light cameras involve right hand turns without stopping?

(ANOTHER DISCLOSURE: when I first moved to California, I was pulled over by Upland Police one night. The police officer said that I had made a “California stop.” He saw my puzzled expression, and explained that a “California stop” is one in which the car is supposed to stop, but doesn’t stop completely. That human police officer DIDN’T give me a ticket that time.)

Back to San Mateo. One member of the City Council was not bothered at all by the rolling right hand turn infractions.

Councilman David Lim was vocal in his support for each and every one of those citations.

“One area that I’m not convinced is this whole notion that we should not be enforcing these California roll stops,” Lim said. “You know, I’m not here to debate… It’s not worth it. All the emails I’ve received about ‘Woe is us, we’re more important than the law. We should be able to make slower stops and not be punished for it…’ I feel so strongly about this that I had to put that on the record.”

In essence, Lim is saying the following: the law states that this particular action is a traffic violation. It is not up to me, or to an individual driver, to say whether this is truly a violation. If it’s against the law, then the law should be enforced. Therefore, the automated red light system is working properly.

Going back to the previous post, opponents of red light cameras would claim that automation lacks an emotional element. A human police officer would never stop someone for something that silly.

Actually, some police officers wouldn’t make the stop, while others would. And some imperfect police officers would use all sorts of emotional criteria to decide whether this is truly a violation or not. Maybe the driver is a really pretty woman. Maybe the driver is the son of the mayor.

Some police officers enforce the law no matter what. Some of you may have known the late Jim Conley of the Anaheim Police Department. Jim let everyone know that if you were cited for something, and if you said that you know Jim Conley…you’d still be cited for that violation.

An automated system usually employs a boolean system – traffic violation, or no traffic violation. Human beings are more complex, and their decisions have a non-boolean outcome – traffic violation, no traffic violation, or “well, but….”

One of the complaints about red light traffic systems is that they appear to be mainly revenue generators. Perhaps human traffic enforcement, which is more inclined to let people off the hook – the California newbie who doesn’t know what a “California stop” is, the pretty flirtatious woman, the person who is the son of the mayor – isn’t generating ENOUGH revenue.

And it’s STILL hard to get to Jerusalem (a history of passports)

In my day job, I spend a lot of time thinking about passports and visas, especially those that have embedded chips with the document holder’s biometrics – unless the passport was stolen from someone else, in which case the chip WOULDN’T have the document holder’s biometrics.

However, the original purpose of the passport wasn’t to see if you were Osama Bin Laden. He hadn’t been born at the time of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 2:7 English Standard Version (ESV)

7 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah…”

This early occurrence emphasizes the main reason for a passport – to protect you when you leave your own country and go to another one.

Now King Artaxerxes didn’t willy-nilly hand out passports to everyone. Most people didn’t travel much, and many of those that did weren’t going to get a passport from the king. (Nehemiah had special access.) So the passport didn’t really take off until a couple of thousand years later.

Not until the reign of King Louis XIV of France did these “letters of request” become popular. The King granted personally signed documents to his court favourites….Within 100 years of Louis XIV’s reign, almost every country in Europe had set up a system to issue passports.

However, by the 19th century, people’s stay-at-home tendencies declined dramatically as rail travel made it easy to travel throughout Europe. So why even bother with passports? Similar sentiments appeared in the United States; passports were required for a brief period in 1861-1862, but then were no longer required.

Then World War I happened. This was a big war that was more terrifying than anything that had occurred previously. (This explains the peace movement of the 1920s; no one ever wanted to go through THAT again – and they didn’t, for about two decades.) Previous wars weren’t so dramatic; during the Napoleonic Wars, England continued to issue its passports in the diplomatic language of French, despite the fact that they were fighting the French at the time. By the middle of World War I, numerous countries, including the United States, set up passport requirements really quickly. The U.S. dropped the passport requirement in 1921, since the “war to end all wars” had already happened. When the next war started in 1941, we re-established the passport requirement, only to drop it again in 1945. By 1952, we required passports for almost every country, and now (since 2009) require it when Americans travel in ANY foreign country.

9/11 obviously affected passports and international travel, introducing the “No Fly List.” But a similar list occurred during the reign of Oliver Cromwell:

[Cromwell] developed an early prototype of the No Fly List by decreeing that no pass be issued to citizens until they promised they would not ‘be aiding, assisting, advising or counselling against the Commonwealth’. The No Sail List lapsed under Charles II…

This emphasizes a secondary function of passports – to keep people from leaving the country. (This is why rich people who are arrested have to surrender their passport before trial.) Yet the original purpose, to protect someone in a foreign country, was still important.

[P]assports were often obtained by U.S. citizens, whether newly naturalized or not, to protect themselves from being detained in other countries or (if naturalized) from their own mother countries. Some European countries were known to draft immigrants visiting their homeland into the military. A passport was used to prove citizenship and protect the traveler.

Campaign fundraising outsourcing

In the old days, politicians handled their own fundraising directly, or asked a trusted insider to do it for them. For example, John Kennedy had his father take care of fundraising. But these days, fundraising – like just about anything else – can be outsourced. According to Forbes, one of the emerging companies in this space is Stripe.

[B]y using Stripe, campaigns can avoid hiring employees to handle payments and donations. [Hillary] Clinton’s donations webpage, featuring a simple sign-up flow that promises security and the ability to set up recurring contributions, is powered by Stripe, which will process the gift, store credit card information and disburse the appropriate funds to the campaign.

The processing presumably includes compliance with all Federal and state campaign finance laws. For this service, Stripe gets a cut of up to 2.9% of the total dollars raised, which seems reasonable.

But Clinton isn’t the only person using Stripe. People from both sides of the aisle, ranging from Bernie Sanders to Mike Huckabee, are using the service. And some candidates are using more than one service.

[Rand] Paul paid $102,371 to Stripe for donations processing last quarter, compared to the $34,396 he disbursed to PayPal for similar services.

Stripe (like Paypal) is not just used for political donations; it can be used for any financial transaction. Interestingly enough, Stripe can accept Bitcoin payments. I’m not sure how the campaign finance regulators react to that, however.

Text-to-911 advances

I recently read a story about the rollout of text-to-911 services in New Jersey. Rather than requiring someone to make a voice call, the person can send a text message to 911.

This has its advantages – for example, in situations where “people … fear being overheard when contacting 911,” the ability to quietly send a text is a plus. In addition, younger people who are used to texting in general may prefer this method.

It also has disadvantages. When two-way communication between the caller and the dispatcher is required, it’s much faster to do it by voice rather than by text.

Toward the end of the article, the following statement was included:

A representative of the state Office of Emergency Telecommunications Services did not return a call seeking comment.

Should have sent a text!

Sterling Crispin asks what facial recognition is recognizing

(DISCLOSURE: I am employed in the biometrics industry.)

Planet Biometrics brought Sterling Crispin to my attention. Crispin is an artist who explores the relationship between technology and humanity.

Technology is an extension of humanity and an embodiment of the human spirit, rather than an external force that one must mitigate. Yet this distributed life-form pulsing on the surface of the earth has its own agency and agenda. My artistic practice explores the relationships between this exponentially growing techno-organism as it relates to spirituality, human consciousness and impermanence.

One of his projects includes his look at my industry. If you are not familiar with the way in which biometric matching systems (such as automated fingerprint identification systems and facial recognition systems) work, it’s important to note that such systems do not compare fingerprints and faces per se. They take images of fingerprints and faces and then process them, reducing them to mathematical representations that can be processed by computers and “matched.” (See this post for an example of how fingerprints are represented in a system.)

The end result is what interests Crispin.

Theoretically, I am concerned with the aggressive overdevelopment of surveillance technology and how this is changing human identity and how humanity interacts with technology. By technology I mean individual instances of technological devices and networked systems like cameras and software, but also what I identify as the ’Technological Other’, a global living super-organism of all machines and software. Technically, my specific focus has been in reverse engineering facial recognition, facial detection, and image correlation techniques in order to reveal how they represent human identity.

The result, according to Crispin, is something that a facial recognition algorithm will recognize as a face, but that does not qualify as a “face” by our common understanding.

Sterling Crispin data mask

While I do not agree with Crispin’s belief that our dependence upon these technologies is somehow converting them into “animistic deities brought out of the algorithmic-spirit-world of the machine and into our material world,” I will grant that the data masks remind us that our biometric records, Twitter avatars, and even voice or video recordings are not us.

However, Crispin’s project doesn’t really touch on a basic conflict in our thinking about surveillance.

In a reactive manner, Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri has resulted in many calls for police to always wear video recording equipment, so that all encounters between police and civilians are recorded. (I’ve touched on this before.) Many are elated at the fact that the actions of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were captured by a number of cameras in Boston, Massachusetts.

At the same time, some of the same people who are demanding that the police record things are also demanding that the police NOT record things. Crispin is disturbed by the fact that the FBI’s Next Generation Identification system can possibly be used on civilians. Many are disturbed by all of those video cameras out there – stationary ones installed by governments and private businesses, and mobile ones on Google Glass and on our own telephones.

You can’t simultaneously demand that things be recorded, and that things not be recorded.

Tangential postscript – earlier in this post, I referred to something that I wrote back in September. Although it was supposedly a fiction story, there was a brief mention of a character named “Officer Jim.”

She still retained the video in which one citizen boldly shouted, “You can’t touch me! I know Officer Jim,” only to receive the reply, “I am Officer Jim. And I’m taking you to the station to get booked.”

There really was an “Officer Jim.” For many years, James Conley worked for the Anaheim Police Department. Among his many responsibilities, Conley was responsible for managing the city’s automated fingerprint identification system – initially a Printrak system provided by my employer Motorola, and subsequently a system provided by my company’s competitor 3M Cogent. After I wrote my post with its “Officer Jim,” the real James Conley passed away suddenly. He will be missed.

I see what you’re doing with that picture

I probably first heard about Section 508 in 2008. If you haven’t heard of Section 508:

Section 508 requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. IT Accessibility & Workforce Division, in the U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Governmentwide Policy, has been charged with the task of educating Federal employees and building the infrastructure necessary to support Section 508 implementation.

At the time I was a product manager for an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) software package, and we could certainly make sure that our software allowed adjustment of colors for color-blind people, and included other features to meet the needs of the disabled.

However, I drew the line at one feature.

An AFIS provides the ability to display two grayscale fingerprint or palmprint images on the computer screen, so that a certified print examiner can visually compare the two prints to see if they came from the same finger or palm segment.

Fingerprint verification
Fingerprint verification screen. Source: Neurotechnology

While it is certainly true that deaf people can perform this activity, I did not see any way that blind people could compare two grayscale images. If you cannot see a picture, it’s possible to read a tooltip that describes the picture (“This is a picture of a watermelon”); however, I couldn’t conceive of any way that one could write a textual description of an individual fingerprint.

In retrospect, my thinking was limited.

Take Kim Charlson of Watertown, Massachusetts, who created a picture of the Eiffel Tower. The bottom of this page includes a document that tells you how to make your own Eiffel Tower picture. The instructions begin as follows:

Line 1: Space 6 times, write The Eiffel Tower
Line 2: Space 9 times, write Paris, France
Line 3: Space 15 times, write 1 s, write 1 wh sign.
Line 4: Space 14 times, write 4 g’s.
Line 5: Space 15 times, write 1 and sign, write 1 y.
Line 6: Space 15 times, write 1 and sign, write 1 y.
Line 7: Space 15 times, write 1 and sign, write 1 y.

As it turns out, I am very familiar with this method of picture creation, since we did it often in Miss Jack’s typing class in school. Of course, back in those days, we created the pictures on a typewriter. (If you don’t know what a typewriter is, see this post.)

But Kim Charlson didn’t create the Eiffel Tower picture for your run-of-the-mill typewriter.

Charlson created this picture for a Braille printer.

Yes, Braille. You see, this picture can be printed on a Braille printer, allowing blind people to feel it and therefore “see” it.

Of course, this 25-line “picture” of the Eiffel Tower is an extremely rudimentary picture, and nothing like the 1,000+ line pictures of fingerprint and palmprint images that an AFIS would show. It isn’t like you can take a picture with a camera and then print it.

Or can you?

[T]he Touch Sight camera makes it possible for the visually impaired to take pictures. The photographer holds the camera up to his or her forehead, and a Braille-like screen on the back makes a raised image of whatever the lens sees….

Designed by Chueh Lee from Samsung China, the camera aims to provide a means of recording the mental photograph that the visually-impaired create of their surroundings using senses other than sight….

Not only is this camera made for people who are blind to take photos, it’s also possible to link this to the vectorization and 3D printers raised images so that the blind can touch and feel and “see” it. This takes this camera a step further.

Now I have no idea if this camera ever made it to market, because the description above is of a prototype camera that was displayed…in 2008.

Yup, the same year that I believed that you couldn’t have blind fingerprint examiners make print image comparisons.

Of course, there’s the whole question of market demand – to my knowledge, the International Association for Identification has never certified a blind fingerprint examiner, so there’s no business call for the AFIS vendors to satisfy their needs – but the ability for blind people to perform print image comparisons is theoretically possible.

When mandatory police cams become public entertainment

“Excuse me,” Steve said to the waitress. “I specifically asked that you substitute bacon for the ground beef in my triple bacon burger.”

Steve and Kim were enjoying – well, Kim was enjoying – a brief lunch break from work.

As the waitress corrected Steve’s order, he turned to Kim. “So, what are you doing tonight after work?”

“I’m going to watch the police webcams,” she replied.

“What, the ones in New York City?” asked Steve.

“No, our local police department has them now. If you go to the Cams page at their website, you can see streaming video from every police officer who is on duty.”

It was true. While police webcams became more popular way back in 2014 after the Ferguson incident and the Ray Rice case, some people still felt that the police were hiding something. As the years went on, more and more police departments adopted transparency rules, and by the time that Kim and Steve were enjoying their bacon-infused lunch, several police departments were not only equipping every police officer and police car with a webcam, but were also providing real-time public access to these feeds. The goal in providing these feeds was to not only provide complete transparency into police operations, but also to educate the public on the dangers that police officers faced every day as they patrolled their communities.

As with any technological advance, however, the lofty goals of the originators were soon replaced by other goals. The streams themselves became revenue sources for the police agencies, as anyone who accessed the feeds had to sit through commercials for bail bond companies, defense attorneys, and Progressive Insurance. And the audience, rather than consisting of civil libertarians monitoring police activity, ended up as a bunch of teens watching voyeuristically.

Even Kim, who worked for a public safety software provider, found herself addicted to the feeds. She especially liked them when officers Jim and Pat (no last names used) were on patrol on Saturday nights. While most of the shift work was frankly boring, there was always the chance that Jim and Pat would run into some drug-crazed citizen who was trying to get to Disneyland via Frisbee. She still retained the video in which one citizen boldly shouted, “You can’t touch me! I know Officer Jim,” only to receive the reply, “I am Officer Jim. And I’m taking you to the station to get booked.”

As she was telling all of this to Steve, Kim noticed two officers walking into the restaurant – and then immediately noticed a young teenage boy running toward the officers, his face pointing directly at the camera on one of the officers’ chests.

“18th Street rules!” the teen shouted at the camera. Then looking at the officers’ faces, he shouted, “And what are you going to do – shoot me? You’re being watched! 18th Street!”

As the teen raced out of the restaurant, Kim heard one of the officers say something.

“Too bad for him that we were off duty and our cameras were turned off.”

Emailing an inmate

Back in the old days, when your loved one was in the county jail, you could take your pen and paper, compose a letter, add a stamp, and put it in the mailbox. The mail would be screened by jail staff, and if acceptable, would be delivered to the inmate.

San Diego County is automating the process – well, part of the process.

General Information about e-mailing an inmate

◾There is no expectation of privacy for e-mail messages. Every message will be reviewed by jail staff; therefore this system should not be used for legal or confidential mail, or any other privileged communications.
◾Please limit your correspondence to two message per day in lieu of postcards.
◾Messages are limited to a single page and may not contain pictures or other attachments.
◾Inmates will not receive the message electronically. The message will be received by jail staff, printed and delivered in printed form to the inmate, generally the following morning.
◾Inmates will not be able to respond via e-mail. Outgoing correspondence will continue to be by U.S. Mail.
◾When prompted to enter your address, please enter the address that you prefer the inmate to use for any written return correspondence.

More here.

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