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September 24, 2018
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Government

Facebook plans voter drive, partners with Democratic/Republican Institutes

in Apps/Delhi/elections/Facebook/Facebook ads/Facebook Election Interference/Facebook Policy/Government/India/Policy/Politics/Social/TC by

Facebook will push users to register to vote through a partnership with TurboVote, has partnered with the International Republican Institute and International Democratic Institute non-profits to monitor foreign election interference, and will publish a weekly report of trends and issues emerging from its new political ads archive. Facebook has also confirmed that its election integrity war room is up and running and the team is now ‘red teaming’ how it would react to problem scenarios such as a spike in voter suppression content.

These were the major announcements from today’s briefing call between Facebook’s election integrity team and reporters.

Facebook’s voter registration drive will also partner with TurboVote, which Instagram announced yesterday will assist it with a similar initiative

Much of the call reviewed Facebook’s past efforts, but also took time to focus on the upcoming Brazilian election. There, Facebook has engaged with over 1000 prosecutors, judges, and clerks to establish a dialog with election authorities. It’s partnered with three fact-checkers in the country and worked with them on Messenger bots like “Fátima” and “Projeto Lupe” that can help people spot fake news.

The voter registration drive mirrors Instagram’s plan announced yesterday to work with TurboVote to push users to registration info via ads. Facebook says it will also remind people to vote on election day and let them share with friends that “I voted”. One concern is that voter registration and voting efforts by Facebook could unevenly advantage one political party, for instance those with a base of middle-aged constituents who might be young enough to use Facebook but not so young that they’ve abandoned it for YouTube and Snapchat. If Facebook can’t prove the efforts are fair, the drive could turn into a talking point for congressional members eager to paint the social network as biased against their party.

The partnerships with the Institutes that don’t operate domestically are designed “to understand what they’re seeing on the ground in elections” around the world so Facebook can move faster to safeguard its systems, says Facebook’s Director of Global Politics and Government Outreach Team Katie Harbath. Here, Facebook is admitting this problem is too big to tackle on its own. Beyond working with independent fact checkers and government election commissions, it’s tasking non-profits to help be its eyes and ears on the ground.

The war room isn’t finished yet, according to a story from the New York Times published in the middle of the press call. Still under construction in a central hallway between two of Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ buildings, it will fit about 20 of Facebook’s 300 staffers working on election integrity. It will feature screens showing dashboards about information flowing through Facebook to help the team quickly identify and respond to surges in false news or fake accounts.

Overall, Facebook is trying to do its homework so it’s ready for a “heat of the moment, last day before the election scenario” and won’t get caught flat-footed, says Facebook director of product management for News Feed Greg Marra. He says Facebook is “being a lot more proactive and building systems to look for problems so they don’t become big problems on our platform.” Facebook’s director of product management for Elections and Civic Engagement Samidh Chakrabarti noted, this is “One of the biggest cross-team efforts we’ve seen.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Sen. Harris tells federal agencies to get serious about facial recognition risks

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Facial recognition technology presents myriad opportunities as well as risks, but it seems like the government tends to only consider the former when deploying it for law enforcement and clerical purposes. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) has written the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission telling them they need to get with the program and face up to the very real biases and risks attending the controversial tech.

In three letters provided to TechCrunch (and embedded at the bottom of this post), Sen. Harris, along with several other notable legislators, pointed out recent research showing how facial recognition can produce or reinforce bias, or otherwise misfire. This must be considered and accommodated in the rules, guidance, and applications of federal agencies.

Other lawmakers and authorities have sent letters to various companies and CEOs or held hearings, but representatives for Sen. Harris explained that there is also a need to advance the issue within the government as well.

Sen. Harris at a recent hearing.

Attention paid to agencies like the FTC and EEOC that are “responsible for enforcing fairness” is “a signal to companies that the cop on the beat is paying attention, and an indirect signal that they need to be paying attention too. What we’re interested in is the fairness outcome rather than one particular company’s practices.”

If this research and the possibility of poorly controlled AI systems aren’t considered in the creation of rules and laws, or in the applications and deployments of the technology, serious harm could ensue. Not just  positive harm, such as the misidentification of a suspect in a crime, but negative harm, such as calcifying biases in data and business practices in algorithmic form and depriving those affected by the biases of employment or services.

“While some have expressed hope that facial analysis can help reduce human biases, a growing body of evidence indicates that it may actually amplify those biases,” the letter to the EEOC reads.

Here Sen. Harris, joined by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Elisabeth Warren (D-MA), expresses concern over the growing automation of the employment process. Recruitment is a complex process and AI-based tools are being brought in at every stage, so this is not a theoretical problem. As the letter reads:

Suppose, for example, that an African American woman seeks a job at a company that uses facial analysis to assess how well a candidate’s mannerisms are similar to those of its top managers.

First, the technology may interpret her mannerisms less accurately than a white male candidate.

Second, if the company’s top managers are homogeneous, e.g., white and male, the very characteristics being sought may have nothing to do with job performance but are instead artifacts of belonging to this group. She may be as qualified for the job as a white male candidate, but facial analysis may not rate her as highly becuase her cues naturally differ.

Third, if a particular history of biased promotions led to homogeneity in top managers, then the facial recognition analysis technology could encode and then hide this bias behind a scientific veneer of objectivity.

If that sounds like a fantasy use of facial recognition, you probably haven’t been paying close enough attention. Besides, even if it’s still rare, it makes sense to consider these things before they become widespread problems, right? The idea is to identify issues inherent to the technology.

“We request that the EEOC develop guidelines for employers on the fair use of facial analysis technologies and how this technology may violate anti-discrimination law,” the Senators ask.

A set of questions also follows (as it does in each of the letters): have there been any complaints along these lines, or are there any obvious problems with the tech under current laws? If facial technology were to become mainstream, how should it be tested, and how would the EEOC validate that testing? Sen. Harris and the others request a timeline of how the Commission plans to look into this by September 28.

Next on the list is the FTC. This agency is tasked with identifying and punishing unfair and deceptive practices in commerce and advertising; Sen. Harris asserts that the purveyors of facial recognition technology may be considered in violation of FTC rules if they fail to test or account for serious biases in their systems.

“Developers rarely if ever test and then disclose biases in their technology,” the letter reads. “Without information about the biases in a technology or the legal and ethical risks attendant to using it, good faith users may be unintentionally and unfairly engaging in discrimination. Moreover, failure to disclose these biases to purchasers may be deceptive under the FTC Act.”

Another example is offered:

Consider, for example, a situation in which an African American female in a retail store is misidentified as a shoplifter by a biased facial recognition technology and is falsely arrested based on this information. Such a false arrest can cause trauma and substantially injure her future house, employment, credit, and other opportunities.

Or, consider a scenario in which a young man with a dark complexion is unable to withdraw money from his own bank account because his bank’s ATM uses facial recognition technology that does not identify him as their customer.

Again, this is very far from fantasy. On stage at Disrupt just a couple weeks ago Chris Atageka of UCOT and Timnit Gebru from Microsoft Research discussed several very real problems faced by people of color interacting with AI-powered devices and processes.

The FTC actually had a workshop on the topic back in 2012. But, amazing as it sounds, this workshop did not consider the potential biases on the basis of race, gender, age, or other metrics. The agency certainly deserves credit for addressing the issue early, but clearly the industry and topic have advanced and it is in the interest of the agency and the people it serves to catch up.

The letter ends with questions and a deadline rather like those for the EEOC: have there been any complaints? How will they assess address potential biases? Will they issue “a set of best practices on the lawful, fair, and transparent use of facial analysis?” The letter is cosigned by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Last is the FBI, over which Sen. Harris has something of an advantage: the Government Accountability Office issued a report on the very topic of facial recognition tech that had concrete recommendations for the Bureau to implement. What Harris wants to know is, what have they done about these, if anything?

“Although the GAO made its recommendations to the FBI over two years ago, there is no evidence that the agency has acted on those recommendations,” the letter reads.

The GAO had three major recommendations. Briefly summarized: do some serious testing of the Next Generation Identification-Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS) to make sure it does what they think it does, follow that with annual testing to make sure it’s meeting needs and operating as intended, and audit external facial recognition programs for accuracy as well.

“We are also eager to ensure that the FBI responds to the latest research, particularly research that confirms that face recognition technology underperforms when analyzing the faces of women and African Americans,” the letter continues.

The list of questions here is largely in line with the GAO’s recommendations, merely asking the FBI to indicate whether and how it has complied with them. Has it tested NGI-IPS for accuracy in realistic conditions? Has it tested for performance across races, skin tones, genders, and ages? If not, why not, and when will it? And in the meantime, how can it justify usage of a system that hasn’t been adequately tested, and in fact performs poorest on the targets it is most frequently loosed upon?

The FBI letter, which has a deadline for response of October 1, is cosigned by Sen. Booker and Cedric Richmond, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

These letters are just a part of what certainly ought to be a government-wide plan to inspect and understand new technology and how it is being integrated with existing systems and agencies. The federal government moves slowly, even at its best, and if it is to avoid or help mitigate real harm resulting from technologies that would otherwise go unregulated it must start early and update often.


You can find the letters in full below.

EEOC:

SenHarris – EEOC Facial Rec… by on Scribd

FTC:

SenHarris – FTC Facial Reco… by on Scribd

FBI:

SenHarris – FBI Facial Reco… by on Scribd

News Source = techcrunch.com

Instagram will promote mid-term voting with stickers, registration info

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Facebook is getting ready to purposefully influence the U.S. mid-term elections after spending two years trying to safeguard against foreign interference. Instagram plans to run ads in Stories and feed powered by TurboVote that will target all US users over 18 and point them towards information on how to get properly registered and abide by voting rules. Then when election day arrives, users will be able to add an “I Voted” sticker to their photos and videos that link to voting info like which polling place to go to.

Combined, these efforts could boost voter turnout, especially amongst Instagram’s core audience of millenials. If one political party’s base skews younger, they could receive an advantage. “Ahead of National Voter Registration Day, we are helping our community register to vote and get to the polls on November 6th” Instagram writes. “From today, Instagram will connect US voters with the information they need to get registered.”

In 2010, a non-partisan “Get out the vote” message atop the Facebook News Feed was estimated to have driven 340,000 additional votes. The study by Nature suggested that “more of the 0.6% growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook”. That’s significant considering the 2000 election had a margin of just 0.1 percent of voters.

You can watch Instagram’s video ads for voting below, which feature a cartoony purple Grimace character and are clearly aimed at a younger audience. They purposefully avoid any Democrat or Republican imagery, but also stick to a polished and American style that could ensure the clips aren’t mistaken for Russian propaganda.

Earlier this year, the company admitted that 120,000 Instagram posts by the Russian military intelligence group the Internet Research Agency reached 20 million Americans in an attempt to sow discord surrounding the 2016 Presidential election. They used a variety of image memes about polarizing social issues to try to divide the country. Facebook has since doubled its security staff to 20,000, required identity verification for political advertisers, and has stepped up its effort to delete scores of fake accounts associated with election interference.

The Russian disinformation attacks could still make users weary to learn about voting from social media. But more turnout means a more democratic society, so it’s easy to see the positive impact of Instagram efforts here. The question remains whether this voter drive will end up the subject of congressional scrutiny at another enevitable hearing on social media and political bias.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Loot boxes face scrutiny from an international coalition of gambling authorities

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The world of online gaming is changing so quickly that players, developers, publishers and regulators are all scrambling to keep up with each other. Case in point: loot boxes, randomized in-game rewards that may or may not have monetary value or be purchasable with real money, are after years of deployment only now being scrutinized globally for being what amounts to thinly veiled gambling.

A suggestive new study from British researchers and a just-announced coalition of governments are the latest indicators that the loot box phenomenon and its derivatives likely won’t continue to be the wild west they’ve been for the last few years.

Many factors have led games to resemble services or channels more than pieces of entertainment with a start and end. And that in turn has changed how these games are monetized. As an alternative to a $60 up-front cost or a $10/month subscription, a game may be released for free but supported with in-game purchases of various kinds, including loot boxes.

Loot boxes usually contain a random reward, such as a new item for your in-game character. They can be earned by playing the game (usually a lot), but often can also be bought. Not only this, but the items have a sort of black market value and are traded among players and indeed gambled in a highly unregulated economy that reports put on the order of billions of dollars.

Although gaming companies compare it to collecting baseball cards or getting a toy in a box of cereal, the reality is plainly more complex than that, and the idea has led to extreme versions where players are constantly urged to buy in-game currencies and rewards. There’s no doubt that companies like EA and Tencent have made enormous amounts of money by luring players into purchases in “free to play” games.

The report, instigated earlier this year by an Australian parliamentary committee, was conducted by David Zendle and Paul Cairns, of York St. John University. The study is a limited one, they are quick to point out, but there is essentially nothing else on the topic and even the most basic research is warranted. “Such work is urgently needed,” they write in the introduction.

For their study, they surveyed thousands of gamers recruited from Reddit about their habits and spending. What they found was that gamers tending toward “problem gambling” habits (i.e. spending or behavior that negatively affects everyday life and relationships) spent considerably more on loot boxes than normal gamers — yet that wasn’t the case for general microtransactions like outright buying an in-game item or currency.

In the summary issued today to Australia’s Committee on Environment and Communications, they write:

We found that the more severe an individual’s problem gambling, the more they spent on loot boxes. The relationship we observed was neither trivial, nor unimportant. Indeed, the amount that gamers spent on loot boxes was a better predictor of their problem gambling than high-profile factors in the literature such as depression and drug abuse.

As anyone with a critical eye for research will have noted by now, and as the researchers point out, this correlation could go either way. In either case, however, it doesn’t look good for the practice:

It may be the case that loot boxes in video games act as a gateway to other forms of gambling, leading to increases in problem gambling amongst gamers who buy loot boxes.

However, it is important to note that an alternative explanation for these results may also be true. The key similarities between loot boxes and gambling may lead to gamers who are already problem gamblers spending large amounts of money on loot boxes, just as they would spend similarly large amounts on other kinds of gambling. In this case, loot boxes would not be providing a breeding ground for the development of problem gambling so much as they would be allowing games companies to exploit addictive disorders amongst their customers for profit.

The researchers conclude that either way, the practice merits more research and possibly regulation. It’s not the same as ordinary gambling, they say, but it’s similar enough that it warrants controls like those exerted on, say, online poker, to prevent harm and abuse.

Governments around the world are split on how to characterize loot boxes, with Belgium taking a severe enough stance that Blizzard was forced to stop offering loot boxes for real money in its popular team shooter Overwatch. But French and German authorities disagreed and have to a certain extent accepted the argument that the practice is more like opening a Kinder Egg or collectible card game pack.

But this uncertainty is itself galvanizing, apparently. A coalition of 15 gambling authorities, including the U.K., France, Portugal, Norway and the U.S. (via tech-savvy Washington State’s gambling commission), issued a shared declaration that they intend to look into these shenanigans and they expect the companies involved to play ball:

We are increasingly concerned with the risks being posed by the blurring of lines between gambling and other forms of digital entertainment such as video gaming. Concerns in this area have manifested themselves in controversies relating to skin betting, loot boxes, social casino gaming and the use of gambling themed content within video games available to children.

We commit ourselves today to working together to thoroughly analyse the characteristics of video games and social gaming. This common action will enable an informed dialogue with the video games and social gaming industries to ensure the appropriate and efficient implementation of our national laws and regulations.

We anticipate that it will be in the interest of these companies whose platforms or games are prompting concern, to engage with [gambling] regulatory authorities to develop possible solutions.

Tying it to kids is a good way to stay on the moral high ground, but there aren’t a lot of problem gamblers in the under-18 bracket. The truth is that while kids are certainly at risk, the problems associated with loot boxes threaten all gamers and indeed the basic economic grounding of gaming itself.

A letter of intent is a start and may cause a change in the ecosystem as developers and publishers aim to make their loot box systems less exploitative (as some have already done) and (what is more likely) engage in a charm offensive to normalize the practice and distance it from more traditional gambling. At the very least it is good to know that there is action afoot in an area that has frustrated and certainly lightened the wallets of millions of gamers.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Why the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI deal has cloud companies going nuts

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By now you’ve probably heard of the Defense Department’s massive winner-take-all $10 billion cloud contract dubbed the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (or JEDI for short).
Star Wars references aside, this contract is huge, even by government standards.The Pentagon would like a single cloud vendor to build out its enterprise cloud, believing rightly or wrongly that this is the best approach to maintain focus and control of their cloud strategy.

Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson Heather Babb tells TechCrunch the department sees a lot of upside by going this route. “Single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the Department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services,” she said.

Whatever company they choose to fill this contract, this is about modernizing their computing infrastructure and their combat forces for a world of IoT, artificial intelligence and big data analysis, while consolidating some of their older infrastructure. “The DOD Cloud Initiative is part of a much larger effort to modernize the Department’s information technology enterprise. The foundation of this effort is rationalizing the number of networks, data centers and clouds that currently exist in the Department,” Babb said.

Setting the stage

It’s possible that whoever wins this DOD contract could have a leg up on other similar projects in the government. After all it’s not easy to pass muster around security and reliability with the military and if one company can prove that they are capable in this regard, they could be set up well beyond this one deal.

As Babb explains it though, it’s really about figuring out the cloud long-term. “JEDI Cloud is a pathfinder effort to help DOD learn how to put in place an enterprise cloud solution and a critical first step that enables data-driven decision making and allows DOD to take full advantage of applications and data resources,” she said.

Photo: Mischa Keijser for Getty Images

The single vendor component, however, could explain why the various cloud vendors who are bidding, have lost their minds a bit over it — everyone except Amazon, that is, which has been mostly silent, happy apparently to let the process play out.

The belief amongst the various other players, is that Amazon is in the driver’s seat for this bid, possibly because they delivered a $600 million cloud contract for the government in 2013, standing up a private cloud for the CIA. It was a big deal back in the day on a couple of levels. First of all, it was the first large-scale example of an intelligence agency using a public cloud provider. And of course the amount of money was pretty impressive for the time, not $10 billion impressive, but a nice contract.

For what it’s worth, Babb dismisses such talk, saying that the process is open and no vendor has an advantage. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said.

Complaining loudly

As the Pentagon moves toward selecting its primary cloud vendor for the next decade, Oracle in particular has been complaining to anyone who will listen that Amazon has an unfair advantage in the deal, going so far as to file a formal complaint last month, even before bids were in and long before the Pentagon made its choice.

Photo: mrdoomits for Getty Images (cropped)

Somewhat ironically, given their own past business model, Oracle complained among other things that the deal would lock the department into a single platform over the long term. They also questioned whether the bidding process adhered to procurement regulations for this kind of deal, according to a report in the Washington Post. In April, Bloomberg reported that co-CEO Safra Catz complained directly to the president that the deal was tailor made for Amazon.

Microsoft hasn’t been happy about the one-vendor idea either, pointing out that by limiting itself to a single vendor, the Pentagon could be missing out on innovation from the other companies in the back and forth world of the cloud market, especially when we’re talking about a contract that stretches out for so long.

As Microsoft’s Leigh Madden told TechCrunch in April, the company is prepared to compete, but doesn’t necessarily see a single vendor approach as the best way to go. “If the DOD goes with a single award path, we are in it to win, but having said that, it’s counter to what we are seeing across the globe where 80 percent of customers are adopting a multi-cloud solution,” he said at the time.

He has a valid point, but the Pentagon seems hell bent on going forward with the single vendor idea, even though the cloud offers much greater interoperability than proprietary stacks of the 1990s (for which Oracle and Microsoft were prime examples at the time).

Microsoft has its own large DOD contract in place for almost a billion dollars, although this deal from 2016 was for Windows 10 and related hardware for DOD employees, rather than a pure cloud contract like Amazon has with the CIA.

It also recently released Azure Stack for government, a product that lets government customers install a private version of Azure with all the same tools and technologies you find in the public version, and could prove attractive as part of its JEDI bid.

Cloud market dynamics

It’s also possible that the fact that Amazon controls the largest chunk of the cloud infrastructure market, might play here at some level. While Microsoft has been coming fast, it’s still about a third of Amazon in terms of market size, as Synergy Research’s Q42017 data clearly shows.

The market hasn’t shifted dramatically since this data came out. While market share alone wouldn’t be a deciding factor, Amazon came to market first and it is much bigger in terms of market than the next four combined, according to Synergy. That could explain why the other players are lobbying so hard and seeing Amazon as the biggest threat here, because it’s probably the biggest threat in almost every deal where they come up against each other, due to its sheer size.

Consider also that Oracle, which seems to be complaining the loudest, was rather late to the cloud after years of dismissing it. They could see JEDI as a chance to establish a foothold in government that they could use to build out their cloud business in the private sector too.

10 years might not be 10 years

It’s worth pointing out that the actual deal has the complexity and opt-out clauses of a sports contract with just an initial two-year deal guaranteed. A couple of three-year options follow, with a final two-year option closing things out. The idea being, that if this turns out to be a bad idea, the Pentagon has various points where they can back out.

Photo: Henrik Sorensen for Getty Images (cropped)

In spite of the winner-take-all approach of JEDI, Babb indicated that the agency will continue to work with multiple cloud vendors no matter what happens. “DOD has and will continue to operate multiple clouds and the JEDI Cloud will be a key component of the department’s overall cloud strategy. The scale of our missions will require DOD to have multiple clouds from multiple vendors,” she said.

The DOD accepted final bids in August, then extended the deadline for Requests for Proposal to October 9th. Unless the deadline gets extended again, we’re probably going to finally hear who the lucky company is sometime in the coming weeks, and chances are there is going to be lot of whining and continued maneuvering from the losers when that happens.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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