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June 16, 2019
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American Civil Liberties Union

Amazon faces greater shareholder pressure to limit sale of facial recognition tech to the government

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This week could mark a significant setback for Amazon’s facial recognition business if privacy and civil liberties advocates — and some shareholders — get their way.

Months earlier, shareholders tabled a resolution to limit the sale of Amazon’s facial recognition tech giant calls Rekognition to law enforcement and government agencies. It followed accusations of bias and inaccuracies with the technology, which they say can be used to racially discriminate against minorities. Rekognition, which runs image and video analysis of faces, has been sold to two states so far and Amazon has pitched Immigrations & Customs Enforcement. A second resolution will require an independent human and civil rights review of the technology.

Now the ACLU is backing the measures and calling on shareholders to pass the the resolutions.

“Amazon has stayed the course,” said Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the ACLU Washington, in a call Friday. “Amazon has heard repeatedly about the dangers to our democracy and vulnerable communities about this technology but they have refused to acknowledge those dangers let alone address them,” he said.

“Amazon has been so non-responsive to these concerns,” said Narayan, “even Amazon’s own shareholders have been forced to resort to putting these proposals addressing those concerns on the ballot.”

It’s the latest move in a concerted effort by dozens of shareholders and investment firms, tech experts and academics, and privacy and rights groups and organizations who have decried the use of the technology.

Critics say Amazon Rekognition has accuracy and bias issues. (Image: TechCrunch)

In a letter to be presented at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, the ACLU will accuse Amazon of “failing to act responsibly” by refusing to stop the sale of the technology to the government.

“This technology fundamentally alters the balance of power between government and individuals, arming governments with unprecedented power to track, control, and harm people,” said the letter, shared with TechCrunch. “It would enable police to instantaneously and automatically determine the identities and locations of people going about their daily lives, allowing government agencies to routinely track their own residents. Associated software may even display dangerous and likely inaccurate information to police about a person’s emotions or state of mind.”

“As shown by a long history of other surveillance technologies, face surveillance is certain to be disproportionately aimed at immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, activists, and other vulnerable communities,” the letter added.

“Without shareholder action, Amazon may soon become known more for its role in facilitating pervasive government surveillance than for its consumer retail operations,” it read.

Facial recognition has become one of the most hot button topics in privacy in years. Amazon Rekognition, its cloud-based facial recognition system, remains in its infancy yet one of the most prominent and available systems available. But critics say the technology is flawed. Exactly a year prior to this week’s shareholder meeting, the ALCU first raised “profound” concerns with Rekognition and its installation at airports, public places and by police. Since then, the technology was shown to struggle to detect people of color. In its tests, the system struggled to match 28 congresspeople who were falsely matched in a mugshot database who had been previously arrested.

But there has been pushback — even from government. Several municipalities have rolled out surveillance-curtailing laws and ordnances in the past year. San Francisco last week became the first major U.S. city government to ban the use of facial recognition.

“Amazon leadership has failed to recognize these issues,” said the ACLU’s letter to be presented Wednesday. “This failure will lead to real-life harm.”

The ACLU said shareholders “have the power to protect Amazon from its own failed judgment.”

Amazon has pushed back against the claims by arguing that the technology is accurate — largely by criticizing how the ACLU conducted its tests using Rekognition.

Amazon did not comment when reached prior to publication.

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Tall Poppy aims to make online harassment protection an employee benefit

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For the nearly 20 percent of Americans who experience severe online harassment, there’s a new company launching in the latest batch of Y Combinator called Tall Poppy that’s giving them the tools to fight back.

Co-founded by Leigh Honeywell and Logan Dean, Tall Poppy grew out of the work that Honeywell, a security specialist, had been doing to hunt down trolls in online communities since at least 2008.

That was the year that Honeywell first went after a particularly noxious specimen who spent his time sending death threats to women in various Linux communities. Honeywell cooperated with law enforcement to try and track down the troll and eventually pushed the commenter into hiding after he was visited by investigators.

That early success led Honeywell to assume a not-so-secret identity as a security expert by day for companies like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Slack, and a defender against online harassment when she wasn’t at work.

“It was an accidental thing that I got into this work,” says Honeywell. “It’s sort of an occupational hazard of being an internet feminist.”

Honeywell started working one-on-one with victims of online harassment that would be referred to her directly.

“As people were coming forward with #metoo… I was working with a number of high profile folks to essentially batten down the hatches,” says Honeywell. “It’s been satisfying work helping people get back a sense of safety when they feel like they have lost it.”

As those referrals began to climb (eventually numbering in the low hundreds of cases), Honeywell began to think about ways to systematize her approach so it could reach the widest number of people possible.

“The reason we’re doing it that way is to help scale up,” says Honeywell. “As with everything in computer security it’s an arms race… As you learn to combat abuse the abusive people adopt technologies and learn new tactics and ways to get around it.”

Primarily, Tall Poppy will provide an educational toolkit to help people lock down their own presence and do incident response properly, says Honeywell. The company will work with customers to gain an understanding of how to protect themselves, but also to be aware of the laws in each state that they can use to protect themselves and punish their attackers.

The scope of the problem

Based on research conducted by the Pew Foundation, there are millions of people in the U.S. alone, who could benefit from the type of service that Tall Poppy aims to provide.

According to a 2017 study, “nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have been subjected to particularly severe forms of harassment online, such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking.”

The women and minorities that bear the brunt of these assaults (and, let’s be clear, it is primarily women and minorities who bear the brunt of these assaults), face very real consequences from these virtual assaults.

Take the case of the New York principal who lost her job when an ex-boyfriend sent stolen photographs of her to the New York Post and her boss. In a powerful piece for Jezebel she wrote about the consequences of her harassment.

As a result, city investigators escorted me out of my school pending an investigation. The subsequent investigation quickly showed that I was set up by my abuser. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration demoted me from principal to teacher, slashed my pay in half, and sent me to a rubber room, the DOE’s notorious reassignment centers where hundreds of unwanted employees languish until they are fired or forgotten.

In 2016, I took a yearlong medical leave from the DOE to treat extreme post-traumatic stress and anxiety. Since the leave was almost entirely unpaid, I took loans against my pension to get by. I ran out of money in early 2017 and reported back to the department, where I was quickly sent to an administrative trial. There the city tried to terminate me. I was charged with eight counts of misconduct despite the conclusion by all parties that my ex-partner uploaded the photos to the computer and that there was no evidence to back up his salacious story. I was accused of bringing “widespread negative publicity, ridicule and notoriety” to the school system, as well as “failing to safeguard a Department of Education computer” from my abusive ex.

Her story isn’t unique. Victims of online harassment regularly face serious consequences from online harassment.

According to a  2013 Science Daily study, cyber stalking victims routinely need to take time off from work, or change or quit their job or school. And the stalking costs the victims $1200 on average to even attempt to address the harassment, the study said.

“It’s this widespread problem and the platforms have in many ways have dropped the ball on this,” Honeywell says.

Tall Poppy’s co-founders

Creating Tall Poppy

As Honeywell heard more and more stories of online intimidation and assault, she started laying the groundwork for the service that would eventually become Tall Poppy. Through a mutual friend she reached out to Dean, a talented coder who had been working at Ticketfly before its Eventbrite acquisition and was looking for a new opportunity.

That was in early 2015. But, afraid that striking out on her own would affect her citizenship status (Honeywell is Canadian), she and Dean waited before making the move to finally start the company.

What ultimately convinced them was the election of Donald Trump.

“After the election I had a heart-to-heart with myself… And I decided that I could move back to Canada, but I wanted to stay and fight,” Honeywell says.

Initially, Honeywell took on a year-long fellowship with the American Civil Liberties Union to pick up on work around privacy and security that had been handled by Chris Soghoian who had left to take a position with Senator Ron Wyden’s office.

But the idea for Tall Poppy remained, and once Honeywell received her green card, she was “chomping at the bit to start this company.”

A few months in the company already has businesses that have signed up for the services and tools it provides to help companies protect their employees.

Some platforms have taken small steps against online harassment. Facebook, for instance, launched an initiative to get people to upload their nude pictures  so that the social network can monitor when similar images are distributed online and contact a user to see if the distribution is consensual.

Meanwhile, Twitter has made a series of changes to its algorithm to combat online abuse.

“People were shocked and horrified that people were trying this,” Honeywell says. “[But] what is the way [harassers] can do the most damage? Sharing them to Facebook is one of the ways where they can do the most damage. It was a worthwhile experiment.”

To underscore how pervasive a problem online harassment is, out of the four companies where the company is doing business or could do business in the first month and a half there is already an issue that the company is addressing. 

“It is an important problem to work on,” says Honeywell. “My recurring realization is that the cavalry is not coming.”

The new electronic police state

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According to the government, your privacy protections evaporate the moment you set foot in an airport.

Although the Fourth Amendment protects us and our “effects” from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” Customs and Border Protection agents can take advantage of an exception to this constitutional protection and search our electronic devices at airports without first establishing reasonable suspicion or securing a warrant.

It’s a problem that’s only getting worse. Last week the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation entered into a suit on behalf of eleven travelers against the Department of Homeland Security. The plaintiffs claim that warrantless and suspicionless border electronic device searches violate the First and Fourth Amendments.

They’re absolutely right. CBP agents are gaining access to massive troves of personal information related to law-abiding Americans. This exception is an affront to everyone’s privacy and must be revoked.

For example, earlier this year Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was subject to a secondary airport inspection at the airport in Houston, and was asked by a customs and border patrol agent for the passcode to a phone he was carrying.

The phone belonged to NASA, and although Bikkannayar explained as much, the agent continued asking for the code. Fearing that CBP would seize the phone and that he would miss his connecting flight to Los Angeles, Bikkannavar relented and provided it.

After around 30 minutes the agent returned with the phone, telling Bikkannavar the phone had been analyzed with “algorithms” and that no “derogatory” information had been found.

The idea that the border or airport is a region of reduced privacy expectations is not new. As Justice Rehnquist noted in the 1977 case United States v. Ramsey, the same Congress that proposed the Bill of Rights passed the United States’ first customs statute, giving officials the authority to search “any ship or vessel, in which they shall have reason to suspect any goods, wares or merchandise subject to duty shall be concealed.”

It was also in Ramsey that Rehnquist declared, “That searches made at the border, pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border should, by now, require no extended demonstration.”

Yet today, unlike 1977 or 1789, more than three quarters of American adults own smartphones. These devices contain vast amounts of data related to our personal and professional lives. CBP policy does not allow agents to access information housed on remote servers, but even a search of information resident on an electronic device can uncover videos, texts, photos and reveal what apps someone has downloaded.

These apps can expose dating habits as well as religious affiliations. Thanks to current policy, any traveler could be coerced into allowing CBP to access this private information without any suspicion that they have violated immigration law.

CBP searches of electronic devices are relatively rare, but the number of such searches has been increasing over the last few years. These searches do not always target travelers from terrorist hotspots, either. Bikkannayar is an American citizen and member of the Border Protection Global Entry program, which is designed for what CBP describes as “pre-approved, low-risk travelers.”

Earlier this year then-DHS Secretary John Kelly discussed, among other things, these electronic device searches at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. While some might think that the warrantless searches of electronic devices may be a valuable counter-terrorism tactic, Kelly did not cite a single instance where an electronic device search had lead to a terrorism charge or conviction.

As the recent ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation suit shows, these searches have disrupted the lives and violated the privacy of a NASA engineer, a former Air Force Captain, a Harvard graduate student, a nursing student, and entrepreneurs, all citizens with no connections to terrorist activity.

It’s important that the federal government keep us safe from foreign threats, and CBP should be able to examine phones and laptops belonging to people who are the subject of a warrant. But CBP should not have the authority to go on fishing expeditions for incriminating data, harassing and intimidating citizens and permanent residents without any evidence of wrongdoing.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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