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Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Slowly the threat is coming into view
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When Keith Rose joined the Occupy St. Louis movement in 2011, he didn't
heed the advice of a fellow demonstrator to wear bandanas to cover his
face. The police had cameras out, but Rose didn't think they were doing
much with the photos they were taking.
When he joined the Ferguson protests a few years later, it seemed to him
that law enforcement had indeed started to put together a file on him.
He had not been arrested at that point, but after a few run-ins with
police where they knew things like where he had been, who he had been
with, or what he had said, he thought it seemed pretty clear that they
were monitoring him.
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"It really upset me and got me more concerned with surveillance," Rose says.
During the protests, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department opened
a surveillance hub called the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC). This data
center aggregates information gathered through technologies like license
plate readers, sensors that can detect and locate gunfire, and cameras
spread across the city. Most of RTCC, as well as much of the technology
that powers it, was not funded by the city, but through grants and
public-private partnerships with companies like Motorola. That approach,
according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), allowed the
police department to sidestep going to the city's elected Board of
Aldermen for approval and city funds.
"It's really disturbing what this says about the future of big tech
being able to expand its own power," Rose says.
But with an effort called Community Control Over Police Surveillance
(CCOPS), the ACLU is attempting to give citizens more control over the
technology that police could use to monitor them. Launched in 2016,
CCOPS aims to help local communities draft and pass laws giving them
oversight of any surveillance technology that law enforcement agencies
or the government want to deploy.
The ACLU works with local lawmakers to craft each law, changing it to
meet the community's specific needs. A dozen cities, plus San
Francisco's BART system, have passed CCOPS laws. In addition to St.
Louis, at least another dozen cities, plus the state of Maine, are in
the process of adopting their own versions of the law.
St. Louis Alderman John Collins-Muhammad helped introduce CCOPS
legislation in 2017 and 2018, and recently reintroduced an updated
version. Collins-Muhammad said that he and the rest of the Board got
community input and updated each iteration. He thinks the latest version
of the bill will pass this year. The law would create a process for
board approval of any new surveillance technology, require annual
reports for equipment purchases, strengthen sunshine laws around law
enforcement data, and call for publishing crime reduction statistics.
The bill tries to balance the concerns of both the public and the
police, Collins-Muhammad says.
"We don't want to invade privacy," he says. "But we also don't want to
limit the police in doing their jobs."
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has also contributed
comments on the bill and has been supportive of it in general,
Collins-Muhammad says. In a statement, Keith Barrett, a sergeant with
=E2=80=8Ethe Department, said that civil liberties and surveillance technol=
can coexist if used in a responsible manner while still helping police
do their job.
=E2=80=9CThe advancement of technological resources continues to allow our
department to deter, document, and reduce crime,=E2=80=9D Barrett says. =E2=
technology that is deployed continues to aid our efforts to prevent
crime and apprehend criminals. We look forward to working with all our
community partners in ensuring transparency and accountability.=E2=80=9D
Privacy Watch, a group of nonprofits in St. Louis, took part in the
discussion around the bill. It wanted the law to address issues related
to bias with the technology, privacy, freedom of speech, and the cost to
"There are so many layers of concern," says Kendra Tatum, a St. Louis
resident and an organizer for the Organization for Black Struggle, a
member group of Privacy Watch. "People refer to the phrase =E2=80=98Big Bro=
jokingly a lot, but we all know that this type of stuff happens."
Collins-Muhammad says he knows the threat personally, having experienced
surveillance when he was an activist during the Ferguson protests. He
said it was =E2=80=9Cscary=E2=80=9D and got him interested in creating poli=
cy that could
limit that experience for others in the future.
"This is something very important to me," he says.
An AI Panopticon
While the Real Time Crime Center doesn't use AI-powered tools yet, it is
technically easy to overlay face recognition software after cameras are
in use. The proposed CCOPS legislation in St. Louis wouldn't outlaw the
technology, but would require law enforcement to go through the Board of
Aldermen if they want to use it.
AI-powered surveillance technology has spread across the world quickly.
ACLU'S Dawn of Robot Surveillance report points out that this is
occurring as camera technology is improving with higher resolution and
night-vision capabilities. At the same time, more cities are installing
centralized surveillance systems, with about 350 million surveillance
cameras across the world in 2016.
With artificial intelligence, a lot of surveillance work can be
automated, making AI game-changing technology. Image Credit: iStock,
The potential of facial recognition technology is perhaps most
prominently on display in China. The government not only uses it to give
out traffic tickets, and has passed laws mandating face scans for those
signing up for internet or a new phone number, but has put it to work
monitoring and imprisoning the Uighur minority. By 2020, China plans to
have more than 600 million cameras operating.
Beyond concerns over increased surveillance, facial recognition software
has been shown to perform less well on dark skin. In a 2018 report
called "Gender Shades," researchers Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru
found that three commercially available systems performed no better than
chance at identifying women with darker skin tones.
The ACLU did its own study showing that Rekognition, Amazon's face
recognition software, misidentified 28 members of Congress. Forty
percent of the algorithm=E2=80=99s mistakes were made in attempting to iden=
people of color, even though they make up only 20 percent of Congress.
Amazon disputed the study and showed that with the recommended higher
confidence threshold, which only lets the algorithm offer up matches if
it is very sure it is right, the misidentifications disappear. However,
one of the police departmentstesting the software admitted to not
setting any confidence threshold.
That isn't the only case of police departments using software in a way
that the developers didn't intend. A study by Georgetown Law Center on
Privacy and Technology found that police fed celebrity photos into face
recognition software, along with sketches and photoshopped images.
There is a long history of surveillance in the U.S. according to Matt
Cagle, an attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. Public and civil
rights groups like the ACLU have fought against much of it, with varying
levels of success. With AI, however, a lot of surveillance work can be
automated, making AI game-changing technology.
"If they can watch us, they can control us," Cagle says.
In fact, the face recognition conversation can be part of the larger
conversation about government surveillance according to Chad Marlow, a
senior advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU, who is also overseeing
CCOPS. The proliferation of technology like surveillance cameras and
Stingrays=E2=80=94which mimic cell phone towers and send out signals that t=
nearby phones into transmitting identifying information and data about
their locations=E2=80=94can be reevaluated. Also, anything new developed, w=
or without AI capabilities, can be integrated in a way that the
community is aware of and has some control over.
=E2=80=9CIn that way, we aren=E2=80=99t playing whack-a-mole,=E2=80=9D Marl=
Drawbacks of Bans
Four cities have gone further than community oversight with their CCOPS
laws: Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and Somerville, Massachusetts
have outright banned face recognition by the government. Earlier this
year, the ACLU, along with another 60 groups, sent a letter to Congress
asking for a federal moratorium on the use of facial recognition for law
enforcement and immigration enforcement until Congress fully debates
which practices should be allowed.
=E2=80=9CThis capability threatens to create a world where people are watch=
and identified as they attend a protest, congregate outside a place of
worship, visit a medical provider, or simply go about their daily
lives,=E2=80=9D the letter said.
But Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and
Innovation Foundation and director of the Center for Data Innovation,
says cities could also end up blocking better potential uses of face
recognition tools out of fear of a surveillance state.
"We're not there yet," he says. "A lot of the concerns there are premature."
Other law enforcement applications of the technology, like finding
suspects or missing children, can be made safer with laws that create
guardrails, like establishing accuracy rates for any software used. The
areas that do matter get conflated with broader issues, like whether the
police should be surveilling protestors at all, Castro said.
"We can separate some of these issues without banning the technology,"
CCOPS laws only regulate government use of technology, and don't stop
private companies from using it. St. Louis has a handful of businesses,
like corner stores, using cameras run by a local company called Blue
Line Technology that says it uses face recognition. Another company
called Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) offered millions of dollars
in crime-fighting technology to St. Louis for free.
But if the police wanted to plug AI-powered cameras from private
property into their Real Time Crime Center or take PSS up on their
offer, CCOPS would kick in, forcing the police to bring the project to
the Board of Aldermen, points out Marlow. Then the community and its
elected officials would decide the future they want to see in their city.
"CCOPS sets up the conversation; it isn't the conversation itself," he says.
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