- After increased calls for tech companies to stop selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement, Amazon pledged to stop for one year.
- Microsoft promised to stop until there is federal legislation, and IBM said it will stop entirely.
- Numerous studies have found that facial recognition programs disproportionately misidentify people of color, which could lead to false arrests. Others are concerned police are using the technology to identify and arrest protestors, as they have in the past.
- Facial recognition is entirely unregulated at the federal level, and all three companies pushed for national legislation.
The Problem With Facial Recognition
IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft have all said they will stop selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement— at least temporarily.
Over the last few years, government agencies and law enforcement have significantly increased their use of facial recognition technology, which is almost entirely unregulated, to track down criminals, terrorists, and illegal immigrants.
One 2016 study by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law that combined FBI data with information about state and local systems found that facial recognition systems used by law enforcement impacts over 117 million American adults, meaning that “one in two American adults is in a law enforcement face recognition network.”
While the use of facial recognition is something that both activists and privacy advocates have criticized for years, the recent protests and calls for changes in policing have placed renewed pressure on tech companies to stop selling these tools to law enforcement agencies.
There are two overarching arguments made by those who oppose the use of facial recognition by law enforcement.
The first is the argument that the law enforcement system is structurally racist, and any policing tool utilized by that system will undoubtedly be used to target Black and brown people— as all policing tools are.
The second argument is that numerous studies have found that the existing facial recognition technology is far more likely to misidentify women and people of color, which means the systems will lead to more wrongful arrests if used by police.
The reason for this fundamental flaw is due to the fact that the data used to build the facial recognition software are often largely made up of pictures of white men, which makes racial bias ingrained in the systems.
For example, one federal report released at the end of last year found that Asian and Black individuals were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified by facial recognition software than white men.
When it comes to the protests, there are also very serious concerns that facial recognition is being used to identify Black Lives Matter protestors— which is something they have done before.
During the protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died in the custody of police in Baltimore in 2015, the Baltimore Police Department used facial recognition technology to identify protestors, try to link them up with their social media profiles, and then target them for arrest.
What Are They Doing Now?
But despite all of that, tech companies continued to sell facial recognition technology to the police and other law enforcement agencies for years, which is why these decisions by some of the three largest tech companies in the world are significant.
IBM was the first to make its announcement last Monday, and also made the most permanent commitment.
“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software,” CEO Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter to members of Congress. “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms.”
Two days later Amazon announced in a statement that it was: “implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology.”
“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” the statement continued. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
Amazon’s commitment here is especially notable because the company’s facial recognition technology has been arguable the most heavily criticized of the three.
A 2018 test conducted by the ACLU found that Amazon’s software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of people who had committed crimes. In 2019, one study found that Amazon’s system had more difficulty identifying women and darker-skinned faces than IBM and Microsoft’s technology.
As for Microsoft, their announcement was made by the company’s president, Brad Smith, in an interview with the Washington Post on Thursday.
“We will not sell facial-recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology,” Smith said, noting that Microsoft has not sold the technology to police departments in the past.
Where the Plans Fall Short
While many have applauded the moves these three companies made, others have noted that there are a lot of places where their plans fall short.
For example, while Microsoft and Amazon have not said if they will stop selling the technology to other government agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Amazon has also faced extra scrutiny over its decision to limit selling their products to the police to just one year, as many have pointed out that it is unlikely we will have comprehensive national legislation by then.
Others have also noted that Amazon has not said what will happen to the police departments its already sold their facial recognition system to, which is significant because, in February, the head of Amazon Web Services said that the company doesn’t know how many police forces had bought their technology.
Even beyond that, numerous activists have called for the technology to be banned at the federal level, full stop. But regardless of a full ban or just more regulation, it is clear that these three companies believe that there needs to be a framework at the national level.
Especially because, as Smith pointed out, smaller companies will likely rush in and fill the space that these big companies are leaving by stepping out of the law-enforcement market— even if just temporarily.
“If all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the Black and African-American people of this nation well,” he said. “We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone.”
But whether or not that will happen anytime soon remains unclear. According to reports, right now there are at least a dozen bills in Congress that address facial recognition either directly or indirectly as part of a larger proposal, though most have bee deprioritized.
There have been a number of efforts at the state and local level, but even those are up in the air, and without a holistic, national framework, not a lot can be expected to change.
See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (CNN) (The Washington Post)
University of Georgia Walks Back on Decision to Get Rid of On-Campus Voting
- On Wednesday, UGA Votes, a student-run voting organization at the University of Georgia, announced that in-person early voting would not be allowed on campus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
- This led to frustrations from students and others in the community who felt it was outrageous that in-person classes and fans at school football games would be allowed but voting would not.
- The school initially responded by saying that football games and voting are different and that it had plans to shuttle students to polling locations, but this only resulted in more outrage.
- On Thursday morning, UGA fully reversed its decision and said it is working with local officials to use Stegeman Coliseum as an early voting location.
UGA To Allow Early Voting on Campus
After a wave of criticism, the University of Georgia said Thursday that it was walking back on its decision to cut in-person voting on campus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In an official statement, the school said is now working with local officials to have in-person voting at its Stegeman Coliseum.
“UGA was pleased this morning to offer Athens-Clarke County and the Georgia Secretary of State’s office the use of Stegeman Coliseum as a site for early voting,” the school said.
“We look forward to working with state and local election officials to facilitate on-campus voting in this indoor venue, which is large enough to support safe social distancing.”
UGA’s Initial Plan
The announcement comes just 24 hours after the school was faulted for saying it could not hold early in-person voting on its campus, which it had done at the Tate Student Center in 2016 and 2018.
When revealing that initial plan, the school cited the coronavirus pandemic as the reason behind the move. According to UGA Votes, a student-run voting organization, the school believed social distancing at the location would be impossible. UGA Votes did bring up the possibility of using the Coliseum but were initially told it would not work.
“UGA Votes is deeply saddened to announce that there will be no on-campus early voting for the 2020 presidential election,” the group said in their statement, still encouraging students to vote despite this obstacle.
One of the main reasons students and others were frustrated with this choice was because while the school rejected the notion of hosting early voting, which begins on October 12, the school’s Sanford Stadium will allow fans in for UGA football games starting October 3. The stadium will fill seats to 20-25% of its nearly 93,000 person capacity.
Many students, UGA community members, and others took to Twitter to express their dissatisfaction with the school’s decision. Some suggested that the school use its football stadium as an early voting location.
The issue also caught the attention of Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate and founder of Fair Fight, an organization devoted to fighting voter suppression.
“COVID19 must never be used as an excuse to limit voting access, including on college campuses,” she wrote. “Early voting at @universityofga has increased opportunity for participation among students in the past, and they should be safely given the same access this year.”
UGA’s chapter of Fair Fight also tweeted, “If we can have football, we should have voting, too.” Its account then shared a petition demanding that the school allow voting, which had over 2,300 signatures as of Thursday morning.
“We strongly urge the University to immediately change course and not be complicit in voter suppression,” the petition reads.
“We find it interesting that the Administration would use student safety as an excuse to limit access to democracy while disregarding student welfare in other regards,” it continued, potentially in reference to the large COVID-19 outbreak the school has seen.
Cases at the school are actually on the decline as of last week in comparison to the week prior. The school reported 421 cases between September 7-13, down from 1,490 cases between August 21-September 6. While it’s a significant decline for a week, overall, the outbreak at UGA is one of the largest college outbreaks across the country.
UGA’s Initial Response
As the backlash continued to pour in, the school tweeted out a statement explaining and defending its initial choice to not hold in-person early voting. UGA maintained that with the ongoing pandemic, the long lines would make it unsafe.
“Those comparing this matter to a football game should be able to recognize that football games will be played outdoors but we will still require social distancing by substantially reducing capacity in the stadium,” the statement said to specifically address those mad that football spectating was still on. “We have eliminated tailgating as well due to a desire to keep the campus as safe as possible and limit visitors during the pandemic.”
It also said it would provide a shuttle to send students to other voting locations, like Downtown Athens. However, this response was met with even more outrage as some thought that if social distancing to wait in line would be impossible, then social distancing in a shuttle would be even harder. Others said that the shuttle would just make lines at other polling places even longer.
Many also said that this was an attempt to suppress young voters.
Before the school released it’s Thursday statement fully reversing course, it tweeted later on Wednesday that it would look into the potential of using the Coliseum.
See what others are saying: (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (CNN) (Athens Banner-Herald)
Trump Shares Doctored Video of Biden Which Replaces “Despacito” With N.W.A’s “F*** Tha Police”
- President Donald Trump shared a doctored video that showed his opponent Joe Biden dancing to “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A.
- Twitter flagged it as manipulated media with a warning label that redirects users to the real clip and information about it. Still, the doctored clip has been viewed 4 million times.
- The real video comes from a campaign event Biden held on Tuesday, celebrating the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. The song he actually played was “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, who earlier introduced Biden to the stage.
- Still, Biden’s choice to play the song resulted in backlash from those who thought he was pandering to Hispanic voters. An NBC Marist poll currently shows Trump and Biden neck and neck in Florida, with Trump taking the Hispanic vote in the sought after state.
Trump Shares Doctored Video
President Donald Trump shared a doctored video of his Democratic opponent Joe Biden on Tuesday playing and dancing to “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A.
The real video comes from a campaign event Biden held in Florida to celebrate the start of Hispanic Heritage Month on Tuesday. He was actually playing “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, who introduced him.
The doctored video was first posted by The United Spot, a conservative, pro-Trump parody account. Trump shared the video in the early hours of Wednesday morning asking “What is this all about?”
As of Wednesday morning, the clip had been viewed over 4 million times. Twitter added a “manipulated media” label to the post, which directs users to a Twitter events page that shows the real video. It also includes several tweets about what really happened, as well as a post mentioning that the video Trump shared was doctored.
Still, Trump shared the video again later on Wednesday saying “China is drooling, they can’t believe this!”
Trump’s repeated sharing of the fake video is part of his larger effort to center his campaign around law enforcement and to paint Biden as anti-police. Biden has said he does not support movements to defund the police, but this has not stopped Trump from trying to tie the former Vice President to protests and riots against police brutality across the country.
“Fuck Tha Police” has been a divisive song since it was released by N.W.A. in 1988. Over 30 years later, the messages in it remain as relevant as ever, and streams for the song have seen a significant boost since protests against police brutality spread across the country.
Joe Biden Accused of Pandering
But it wasn’t just the doctored version of the clip that drew attention and outrage. The original version had its own wave of backlash as many thought Biden’s choice to play “Despacito” was a cringe-worthy attempt to pander to Hispanic voters.
Fonsi, Eva Longoria, and Ricky Martin all spoke at the event, which was Biden’s first in Florida since he became the Democratic nominee. Some thought his choice to pull out his phone and play the hit song was a nod to Fonsi, but others compared it to comments Clinton made in 2016 about always keeping hot sauce in her bag, or encouraging people to “PokemonGo to the polls.”
Others pointed out the fact that “Despacito” means “slowly,” which plays right into Trump’s “Slow Joe” nickname for Biden.
Getting the Hispanic Vote
This comes amid a tight fight between Biden and Trump for Florida and the Latino vote in the high-stakes state. Some polling shows Biden a hair ahead of Trump in the state, but others show the two neck and neck. An NBC Marist poll has both candidates at 48% and shows Trump doing better amongst Latino voters.
This data actually speaks to a larger issue within the Biden campaign. On a national level, analysis from CNN has found that Trump has increased his standing with Hispanic voters during his four years in office. While he still trails behind Biden, their analysis finds that the former Vice President could win the Hispanic vote by 28 points, compared to Clinton’s 37 point lead in 2016.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (Forbes) (Variety)
House Investigation Faults Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration for MAX 8 Crashes
- The Democratic majority on the House Transportation Committee released the results of their 18-month investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes.
- It has been described as the most comprehensive report yet that looks the roles Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) played.
- Among other information, the inquiry found that Boeing prioritized profit over public safety and that the FAA provided “grossly insufficient oversight.”
- The report comes as the FAA is expected to recertify the MAX 8 to fly within just a few months.
House Committee Report
A sweeping Congressional investigation released Wednesday directly blamed Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for two 737 MAX 8 planes that crashed within five months of each other, killing 346.
The inquiry, which was released by the Democratic majority on the House Transportation Committee, has been described as the most comprehensive report yet regarding the role both Boeing and the FAA played in certifying the plane that caused two fatal crashes.
In October 2018, a MAX 8 operated by Lion Air crashed off the coast of Indonesia resulting in the death of 189 people. Then, in March 2019, another MAX 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed outside of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.
Drawing from interviews with two dozen Boeing and FAA employees and around 600,000 pages of records, the findings of the committee’s 18-month investigation paint a grim picture of the numerous issues with the development and certification of the MAX 8, and specifically, the software system faulted with bringing both planes down.
The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was designed to automatically correct the level the plane was flying at to prevent it from stalling and falling out of the sky. However, investigations found that on both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights, MCAS had pushed the planes’ noses down at a dangerous angle.
When the pilots tried to stabilize, the system kept pushing them down again and again until they eventually went into uncontrollable nose-dives and crashed. Further complicating matters was the fact that after the first crash, numerous pilots came forward and said they were never told about MCAS, were not trained on it, and that it had been left out of their flight manuals.
Five Key Themes
In their report, the Democrats explicitly state that the crashes were “the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”
To illustrate their findings, the committee outlined five overarching themes that they say ultimately lead to such fundamental problems with the MAX 8’s design, construction, and certification.
The first theme is “Production Pressure.” Here the inquiry notes that there was significant financial pressure on Boeing to quickly build and certify the MAX 8 because the model was designed to compete with a new line of planes being developed by their biggest rival, Airbus.
This, the committee says, led Boeing to prioritize cost-cutting, production goals, and maintaining their schedule to meet certification deadlines over public safety.
The second theme the report outlines is “Faulty Design and Performance Assumptions.” Specifically, it says that Boeing made “fundamentally faulty assumptions about critical technologies on the 737 MAX, most notably with MCAS.”
The committee then goes on to list a handful of examples, like the fact that MCAS relied on only one sensor, so if that censor failed — as it did during both the crashes — it could cause MCAS to engage when it should not. It also says Boeing expected that pilots would be able to deal with that malfunction even though they did not know the system even existed.
Notably, the report claims that Boeing “failed to classify MCAS as a safety-critical system, which would have attracted greater FAA scrutiny during the certification process,” and that “the operation of MCAS also violated Boeing’s own internal design guidelines” regarding interactions with piloting and interfering in dive recovery.
The overarching problem the inquiry flagged was “Culture of Concealment.”
“In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots,” it stated before going to provide examples.
In addition to the fact that Boeing did not tell pilots about MCAS, the company also failed to disclose that a crucial safety feature was “inoperable on the vast majority of the 737 MAX fleet, despite having been certified as a standard aircraft feature.”
The safety feature in question informed pilots if the sensors that activated MCAS were feeding the system incorrect data, which is what happened in both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights.
The investigation also found that Boeing concealed a flight simulation where it took a test pilot more than 10 seconds to respond to an unwanted MCAS activation — “a condition the pilot found to be ‘catastrophic’” — given the fact that federal guidelines assumed pilots would respond to massive system problems of that nature within four seconds.
While the report does note that Boeing was not legally required to disclose these things to the FAA or its customers, it still argued that it was “inconceivable and inexcusable that Boeing withheld this information from them.”
Under the fourth theme, “Conflicted Representation,” the committee reported that “the FAA’s current oversight structure with respect to Boeing creates inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public.”
It goes on to note several documented instances where Authorized Representatives, which are Boeing employees who were given the ability to act on behalf of the FAA and certify that some of the plane’s designs meet the agency’s requirements, “failed to disclose important information to the FAA that could have enhanced the safety of the 737 MAX aircraft.”
The inquiry also states that some of the concerns raised internally by those representatives that were not relayed to the FAA, not investigated, or dismissed by Boeing employees involved the same issues with MCAS that caused both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes.
The final theme the committee put forward in their report was “Boeing’s Influence Over the FAA’s Oversight Structure.”
There, the investigation found multiple instances documented by FAA officials where “FAA technical and safety experts determined that certain Boeing design approaches on its transport category aircraft were potentially unsafe and failed to comply with FAA regulations, only to have FAA management overrule them and side with Boeing instead.”
The last theme is extremely important in understanding both how Boeing got into this debacle and how the industry can move forward.
For years, the FAA — at the direction of Congress — has been giving more and more regulatory oversight powers to plane manufacturers like Boeing. That has been a win-win for both the FAA and Boeing.
The FAA is a government agency with very limited resources, so giving Boeing more authority over day-to-day safety assessments lets them focus their energy on the bigger picture safety aspects of the certification process.
For Boeing, which has lobbied Congress in favor of these practices, it cuts back a ton of red tape so they can speed up the certification of their planes and compete with foreign rivals like Airbus.
Both the FAA and plane manufacturers have said they are using this cooperation to make planes safer, but watchdog groups and unions have repeatedly expressed concerns that letting manufacturers self-regulate too much could compromise safety and allow plane manufacturers to act in their own self-interest.
Those concerns grew during the aftermath of the MAX 8 crashes and the mounting evidence from investigations and hearings. While the House committee’s report does not provide many new pieces of bombshell information, many believe it is the necessary first step in crafting legislation to better regulate the aerospace industry.
In a statement with the release of the inquiry’s findings, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Or.), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said it was “mind-boggling” that “both FAA and Boeing came to the conclusion that the certification of the Max was compliant.”
“The problem is it was compliant and not safe. And people died,” he said, adding that it is “clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired.”
“This is a tragedy that never should have happened. It could have been prevented and we’re going to take steps in our legislation to see that it never happens again as we reform the system.”
While the Senate Commerce Committee is set to consider a bill this week to strengthen the airplane certification process, House Republicans on the Transportation Committee did not endorse the investigative report.
In a statement regarding the Democrat’s report, the committee’s ranking member Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) criticized Democrats for an investigation that “began by concluding that our system was broken and worked backwards from there.”
“If aviation and safety experts determine that areas in the FAA’s processes for certifying aircraft and equipment can be improved, then Congress will act,” he added.
But Congress may be running out of time.
“The report was issued as the F.A.A. appeared close to lifting its grounding order for the Max after test flights this summer. F.A.A. clearance could lead aviation authorities elsewhere to follow suit and allow the plane to fly again as soon as this winter,” The New York Times noted in its coverage of the committee’s report on Wednesday
Boeing has been doing a lot of work to update the problems with the plane and make it flyable. However, there are still many concerns as to whether or not lawmakers, airlines, and customers should still trust the company to fix the flawed aircraft without an overhaul to the regulatory system — especially given all the flaws in the certification system that so many investigations have revealed.