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Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM Will Temporarily Stop Selling Facial Recognition Technology to Law Enforcement

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  • 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)

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Contradicting Studies Leave Biden’s COVID-19 Booster Plan Up in the Air

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While some studies show that the effectiveness of Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID vaccines decrease over time, other publications argue the decline is not substantial and a full-flung booster campaign is premature.


Booster Rollout in Flux

President Joe Biden’s plan to offer COVID-19 booster shots is facing serious hurdles just a week before it is set to roll out. Issues with the plan stem from growing divisions among the scientific community over the necessity of a third jab.

The timing of booster shots administration has been a point of contention for months, but the debate intensified in August when Biden announced that, pending regulatory approval, the government would start offering boosters on Sept. 20 to adults eight months after they received their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna.

The announcement was backed by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others.

However, many scientists and other health experts both inside and outside of the government have continually criticized the plan. They have claimed the data supporting boosters was not compelling and argued that, while the FDA approved third doses for immunocompromised Americans, the push to give them to the general public was premature.

The plan also drew international backlash from those who argued the U.S. should not launch a booster campaign when billions of people around the world have not gotten their first dose yet. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) extended its request that wealthy countries hold off on giving boosters until at least the end of the year.

Those arguments appeared to be bolstered when federal health regulators said earlier this month that they needed more time to review Moderna’s application for booster shots, forcing the Biden Administration to delay offering third shots to those who received that vaccine.

Now, Pfizer recipients will be the only people who may be eligible for boosters by the initial deadline, though that depends on a forthcoming decision from an FDA expert advisory committee that is set to vote Friday on whether or not to recommend approval.

Debate Continues in Crucial Week

More contradictory information has been coming out in the days leading up to the highly anticipated decision.

On Monday, an international group of 18 scientists, including some at the FDA and the WHO, published a review in The Lancet arguing that there is no credible data to show the vaccines’ ability to prevent severe disease declined substantially over time, so boosters are not yet needed for the general, non-immunocompromised public.

The experts claimed that any advantage boosters may provide does not outweigh the benefit of giving the extra doses to all those who are unvaccinated worldwide. 

On the other side, a study released Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people who received a third shot of Pfizer in Israel were much less likely to develop severe COVID than those who just had the first two jabs.

The same day, both Pfizer and Moderna published data backing that up as well. Pfizer released an analysis that said data on boosters and the Delta variant from both Israel and the U.S. suggested “that vaccine protection against COVID-19 infection wanes approximately 6 to 8 months following the second dose.” 

Moderna also published data, that has not yet been peer-reviewed, which also found its jab provided less immunity and protection against severe disease as time went on.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the FDA additionally released its report on Pfizer’s analysis of the need for a booster shortly after Pfizer’s publication. Normally, those findings would shine a light on the agency’s stance on the issue, but the regulator did not take a clear stand.

“Some observational studies have suggested declining efficacy of [Pfizer] over time […] while others have not,” the agency wrote. “Overall, data indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized COVID-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe COVID-19 disease and death.”

Uncertain Future

It remains unclear what the FDA panel will determine when they meet Friday, or what a similar CDC expert panel that is expected to meet next week will decide regarding vaccination policies.

Notably, officials at the two agencies are not required to follow the recommendations of their expert panels, though they usually do.

Even if the FDA approves Pfizer’s application as it stands to give boosters to those 16 and older, people familiar with the matter said the CDC might recommend the third jabs only for people 65 and older or those who are especially at risk.

Regardless of what is decided, experts have said that it is absolutely essential for the agency to stand firm in its decision and clearly explain its reasoning to the public in order to combat further confusion and misinformation.

“F.D.A. does the best in situations when there are strongly held but conflicting views, when they’re forthcoming with the data and really explain decisions,” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told The New York Times. “It’s important for the F.D.A. not to say, ‘Here’s our decision, mic drop. It’s much better for them to say, ‘Here’s how we looked at the data, here are the conclusions we made from the data, and here’s why we’re making the conclusions.’”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNBC) (The Guardian)

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Kansas Lawmaker Accused of Kicking Teen in Groin Receives Suspended Sentence

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Before allegedly assaulting the teenager in class, the lawmaker and former substitute teacher ranted to students about God, the Bible, Masturbation, and more.


Samsel Displays Inappropriate Behavior

Kansas Rep. Mark Samsel (R) was given a 90-day suspended jail sentence and one year of probation Monday after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct. 

Samsel, a former high school substitute teacher in Wellsville, initially caused outrage in April after displaying bizarre classroom behavior. Footage recorded by students and published by the Kansas City Star showed Samsel ranting about the wrath of God, the Bible, masturbation, suicide, and other topics. At one point, he allegedly even pushed a student against a wall and kicked him in the groin.

While that specific altercation doesn’t appear to have been caught on video, student footage shows what seems to be the aftermath of the alleged assault.

“I’m simply built different, Mark. I don’t feel pain,” the student jokingly tells Samsel after picking himself up off the ground. Samsel responds by asking if the student is about to cry.

“You want to go to the nurse? She can check it for you?” Samsel adds.

“Make babies! Who likes making babies? That feels good, doesn’t it? Procreate,” Samsel said at another point in the video. “You haven’t masturbated? Don’t answer that question.”

Other notable quotes include, “Would you like me to introduce [you] to a sophomore who’s tried killing himself three times because he has two parents and they’re both females?,” and, “I could put the wrath of God on your right now because that is what he is trying to do. You should run and scream cause the devil’s getting the hell out of my classroom.”

After students reported his behavior, Samsel told local news outlets that he didn’t do anything wrong and that the situation was actually “planned.”

The kids and I planned ALL this to SEND A MESSAGE about art, mental health, teenage suicide, how we treat our educators and one another. To who? Parents. And grandparents. And all of Wellsville,” he also wrote on Snapchat, according to The Star.

However, he later told investigators that he what at his “wit’s end” with “misbehaving students.” Then last month, he announced via Facebook that he had sought mental health treatment and was giving up his substitute teaching license, describing the situation as an “isolated episode of mania with psychotic features’‘ prompted by “extreme stress, pressure and agitation.”

Samsel’s Sentence

Samsel faced additional consequences in conjunction with his suspended sentence and year of probation. He was also banned from using social media, unless for political purposes. He cannot have contact with the students who reported him and must write apology letters to those involved. He must also follow mental health treatment recommendations and take any prescribed medications

Samsel, for his part, apologized in his court appearance via Zoom, saying he never “intended for anyone to get hurt.”

Some parents seem happy with the sentence, like Joshua Zeck, who told the Star, “From the beginning, all I wanted was for Mark to get some help.”

“I don’t want to see anybody go to jail. So if this does him so good and he’s doing better, I’m happy to hear that,” Zeck continued.

Others in the community told the paper that his sentencing was too lenient, including Mary Woods, whose niece had class with Samsel the day of the incident.

“I don’t think that’s enough. He laid his hands on a kid. … He traumatized a lot of these kids. I think it’s bullsh*t, to say so myself.”

As far as whether Samsel will keep his job in the state legislature, Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman said that’s up to voters to decide.

See what others are saying: (The Kansas City Star)(Insider)(NBC News)

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Alabama Man Dies After Being Turned Away From 43 Hospitals Overwhelmed by COVID Patients, Family Says

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Alabama currently has the second-highest COVID hospitalization average and fourth-lowest vaccination rate in the country.


Full ICUs Allegedly Delay Care for Emergent Cardiac Patient 

The family of an Alabama man who died of heart issues is calling on people to get vaccinated after he was turned away by 43 hospitals in three states while having a cardiac emergency because all of their Intensive Care Units were at maximum capacity with COVID patients.

The man, 73-year-old Ray DeMonia, was taken to Cullman Regional hospital in Alabama on Aug. 23. The next morning — around 12 hours after he was admitted — his daughter said her mother got a call saying that hospital workers were unable to find him a specialized cardiac ICU bed in the area. 

He was eventually transferred to a hospital in Mississippi about 200 miles away and died on Sept. 1, just three days before his birthday.

In DeMonia’s obituary, his family pleaded with people to get the vaccine.

“In honor of Ray, please get vaccinated if you have not, in an effort to free up resources for non COVID related emergencies,” they wrote. “He would not want any other family to go through what his did.”

Rising Hospitalizations

Officials and healthcare providers in Alabama have said DeMonia’s case is not a one-off incident. 

Jennifer Malone, a spokesperson for Cullman Regional, told The Washington Post that situations like this have been an “ongoing problem” reported by doctors at the hospital and others throughout the state.

“When patients are transported to other facilities to receive care that they need, that’s becoming increasingly more difficult because all hospitals are experiencing an increased lack of bed space,” she said.

On Friday, Scott Harris, the head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said that the state’s spike in ICU patients has stabilized some. Still, he added there are not enough ICU beds for the number of patients that need intensive care, many of whom are unvaccinated.

Even with the spikes “stabilizing,” Alabama still has the second-highest COVID hospitalizations in the U.S., according to The Post tracker

The calls from DeMonia’s family for people to get vaccinated also come as Alabama struggles with the country’s fourth-lowest vaccination rate. Despite those figures, top officials in the state are doing little to address the issue.

Last week, after President Joe Biden rolled out a sweeping vaccine mandate for 100 million people and promised he would use his power to circumvent Republican leaders “undermining” relief efforts, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) told the president to “bring it on.”

Ivey then doubled down on her refusal to mandate vaccines in her state, where people are being refused emergency hospital care because so many unvaccinated people are in ICU beds.

“You bet I’m standing in the way. And if he thinks he’s going to move me out of the way, he’s got another thing coming,” she said, referring to the mandates as “outrageous” and “overreaching” policies that will “no doubt be challenged in the courts.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NBC News) (NPR)

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