February 27, 2012
Heads up: Drones are going mainstream.
Unmanned military aircraft have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia. Their civilian cousins are now in demand by police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organizations and others wanting a bird’s-eye view that’s too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to get.
Along with the enthusiasm, there are qualms.
Drones overhead could invade people’s privacy. The government worries they could collide with passenger planes or come crashing down to the ground.
Despite that, pressure is building to give drones the same access as manned aircraft to the sky at home.
The Federal Aviation Administration must write rules allowing civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015.
February 8, 2012
By G.W. Schulz
When several armed robberies occurred recently in Lancaster, Calif., police had little of use on the two suspects. Then, a reliable image of one suspect turned up from a surveillance camera.
In years past, that still might not have been enough for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to close the case.
But with the help of new facial recognition software, investigators plugged the image into a database of booking photos and quickly came up with a possible match. That led to a pair of arrests on Jan. 27.
Facial recognition technology is growing rapidly, both in the consumer world and among police, but privacy advocates are troubled by the potential for intrusion and misuse.
Police in Tampa, Fla., created an uproar several years ago when they installed facial recognition devices in an entertainment district, hoping to identify wanted criminals. The system eventually was unplugged, because it didn’t catch any perpetrators. A similar effort at the 2001 Super Bowl also netted few results.
Things have changed since then. Agencies like the cutting-edge Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida are using millions of jail mug shots to double-check identities if they believe someone is lying about who they are. Deputies can simply snap a photo of the person and begin a search using their in-car laptop.
That’s how the agency unmasked one man with an active warrant. In another 2009 incident, the North Miami Police Department asked Pinellas County deputies for help tracking down a bank robbery suspect, and they did so with a surveillance video image that led to an arrest.
“All of this was accomplished by lunch time,” the sheriff’s office boasted then in a press release. Pinellas County also became the first in the nation that year to include the use of driver’s license photos in its searching capabilities, rather than just individuals who have been arrested.
In the meantime, outcry over the technology is heating up. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington last week called for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition in consumer products. Namely, they’ve targeted a Facebook feature that enables users to tag the photos of friends using special software.
January 9, 2012
By Tana Ganeva
The FBI claims that their fingerprint database (IAFIS) is the “largest biometric database in the world,” containing records for over a hundred million people. But that’s nothing compared to the agency’s plans for Next Generation Identification (NGI), a massive, billion-dollar upgrade that will hold iris scans, photos searchable with face recognition technology, palm prints, and measures of gait and voice recordings alongside records of fingerprints, scars, and tattoos.
Ambitions for the final product are candidly spelled out in an agency report: “The FBI recognizes a need to collect as much biometric data as possible within information technology systems, and to make this information accessible to all levels of law enforcement, including International agencies.” (A stack of documents related to NGI was obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights and others after a FOIA lawsuit.)
It’ll be “Bigger — Better — Faster,” the FBI brags on their Web site. Unsurprisingly, civil libertarians have concerns about the privacy ramifications of a bigger, better, faster way to track Americans using their body parts.
“NGI will expand the type and breadth of information FBI keeps on all of us,” says Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “There should be a balance between gathering information for law enforcement, and gathering information for its own sake.”
December 28th, 2010
By: Roger Simon
On the day after Christmas, readers of The Washington Post were given a real treat: pictures of naked men.
The men in the pictures were fully clothed, but they were naked nonetheless, because the pictures came from airport full-body scanners.
The machines provided graphic pictures of the male anatomy. True, they were no more graphic than Michelangelo’s David or Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (that’s the naked guy with his arms and legs stuck out), but both of those were depictions, not actual people trying to heft their wheelie bags on the conveyor belt, take off their shoes and jackets, remove their laptops, take out their baggies full of fluids no more than 3 ounces in size, take the metal out of their pockets and somehow get through security before their planes take off.
According to the Post, by New Year’s Day, there will be 500 such machines in use nationwide and 1,000 by the end of 2011, or roughly one machine for every two security lanes in every airport in the land.
If the machines offend your sense of modesty or decency for yourself or your children, then you can request a pat-down where your naughty bits may be touched by a Transportation Security Administration screener rather than projected on a video screen.
Officials say 98 percent of people go through the machines rather than request a pat-down, which is not surprising: First, who likes to be touched by a stranger? And second, going through the machines is faster, and flying has becomes such a cumbersome and aggravating experience that most people will do anything to get it over with.
(There is a company called Flying Pasties, which claims to have a product that you slip inside your clothing to screen your private parts. “It’s simply not against the law to keep your private parts private,” the company says.)
Some parties are suing the government over the new machines, claiming an unreasonable invasion of privacy, while others claim the machines expose people to too much radiation, which the government denies.
Most people, however, accept it as just another agony associated with flying (along with fees to check baggage and crowded luggage bins).
And, after all, the machines are worth it because they detect explosives.
Except they don’t. As it turns out, the machines don’t detect explosives at all. They detect images on your body that shouldn’t belong on your body.
“It’s not an explosive detector; it’s an anomaly detector,” Clark Ervin, who runs the Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute, told the Post. “Someone has to notice that there’s something out of order.”
Which means those security employees who stare at the screens have to be sharp enough and well-trained enough to detect things that are abnormal. (And some experts think that if the explosives are flat and pancake-shaped and taped to your stomach, they could not be detected anyway, because the picture would look too normal.)
The machines cost $130,000 to $170,000 each, and by 2014, the federal government will have spent $234 million to $300 million for them.
Which would be a bargain if they actually did something besides embarrass people. In May, a TSA screener at Miami International Airport who went through a full-body screening as part of his training was arrested for beating a co-worker with a police baton after co-workers made fun of the size of his private parts.
The solution for passengers? Get used to it.
Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, was interviewed Sunday by CNN’s Candy Crowley, and Napolitano said nothing was going to change “for the foreseeable future.”
“You know, we’re always looking to improve systems and so forth,” Napolitano said. “But the new technology, the pat-downs, is just objectively safer for our traveling public.”
But Crowley decided to screen and pat down that assertion.
Citing an ABC report, Crowley said, “There are some major airports who had a 70 percent failure rate at detecting guns, knives, bombs, that they got through in your tests…. So how good can it be when you have major airports with a 70 percent fail rate?”
Napolitano dismissed those results as old and questionable and said, “Let’s set those aside.” One of the real successes of the machines and procedures, Napolitano said, is that they discourage terrorists from even trying to get on planes.
In other words, the machines keep us safe even if they don’t work at all.
“What we know is that you can’t measure [how] the devices … are deterring [terrorists] from going on a plane,” Napolitano said.
“Just people who just are discouraged, thinking they’d be found out,” said Crowley.
“Exactly,” said Napolitano.
In which case, we do not need machines that cost upward of $130,000 each.
All we need are archways made out of $30 or $40 worth of sheet metal that are labeled: “Official Destructo Machine — If You Are a Terrorist, This Machine Will Not Only Zap You, but Put a Picture of Your Private Parts on YouTube.”
That ought to do it.
December 7th, 2010
By: David Moye
A former “Baywatch” beauty is feeling overexposed after going through what she says was a humiliating body scan by Transportation Security Administration agents at Los Angeles International Airport.
Donna D’Errico, who was the Playboy Playmate in September 1995, says she got a few leers along with the scan and isn’t happy about it.
D’Errico, 42, says the encounter occurred at LAX while trying to catch a flight to Pittsburgh with her son, Rhyan, 17.
“We were on our way to see Rhyan’s aunt, who had just been put on life support in the ICU,” D’Errico told AOL News in an exclusive interview. “My boyfriend and his business partner happened to be flying the same airline [American] on their way to New York for business. We got checked in and headed to security.”
After waiting in a long line of holiday travelers, D’Errico and her son finally made it to the moving carrier where all the carry-on bags are placed. That’s when a TSA agent took her by the elbow and told her she needed to “come this way.”
“I said I was traveling with my son, motioning to him, and the agent said he was to come along with me as well,” D’Errico said. “I immediately asked why we were having to go through an extra search, and no one else was being made to do so, indicating the long line of other passengers in front of and behind where we had been in line. In a very sarcastic tone, and still holding me by the elbow, the agent responded, ‘Because you caught my eye, and they’ — pointing to the other passengers — ‘didn’t.’”
D’Errico is still wondering how she caught his eye while others didn’t.
“My boyfriend and his partner sailed through with no problems, which is rather ironic in that my boyfriend fits the stereotypical ‘look’ of a terrorist when his beard has grown in a bit, which it was that evening,” she said.
Although D’Errico was a regular on “Baywatch” from 1996 to 1998, a period when it was one of the most popular shows worldwide, she doesn’t know whether she was singled out because of her fame. “I’m not sure whether they had recognized me or not,” she admitted. “If they did, they didn’t say anything. However, it is my personal belief that they pulled me aside because they thought I was attractive. My boyfriend, as I mentioned before, looks much more like a terrorist than either I or my son do, and he went through security with no problems.”
The TSA rules regarding scans and searches dictate that passengers can select a scan or a search. D’Errico says that was never an option.
“They never even told me what they were doing at all, or that I had any choice,” she said. “It was just, ‘Stand here. Raise your arms above your head like this.’ They never told me that they were going to be conducting a full-body scan, or that I had the option of being searched instead. Had they explained what they were doing, I would have opted for the search. As a matter of fact, my son was made to not only go through the full-body scan, but they also conducted a pat-down search on him as well.
“After the search, I noticed that the male TSA agent who had pulled me out of line was smiling and whispering with two other TSA agents and glancing at me. I was outraged.”
So was her boyfriend, Roy J. Bank, the president of Merv Griffin Entertainment, who says he was in disbelief at what had just occurred.
“Anything that upsets Donna upsets me,” he said. “I hated her being humiliated like that. I was genuinely shocked by both Donna and Rhyan being pulled aside for the extensive scanning.
“I’m all for measures to make us safer when traveling, but when it is so incredibly arbitrary, I don’t feel any safer … and I can promise you that her getting additional screening and the line full of people I saw around us not getting additional screening is not making us any safer!”
Although some might wonder why a woman who appeared nude in Playboy and wore a red bathing suit for three seasons of “Baywatch” is bothered about having one or two TSA agents see a computer scanned image of her naked body, but D’Errico says they are two separate issues.
“I must have overlooked the clause in both my Playboy and ‘Baywatch’ contracts stating that once appearing in that magazine, or on that show, I would forever be subject to being seen naked live and in person by anyone, at anytime, under any conditions, whether I agree to it or not, and for free,” she said sarcastically.
“I posed for Playboy 15 years ago. I was on ‘Baywatch’ 13 years ago. Both of those were controlled environments, with proper lighting, makeup, etc., and were jobs. I contractually agreed to do both of those jobs. I could have stopped or changed my mind at any time. None of those conditions are present when TSA decides for you that you will consent to being scanned or felt up, or you simply won’t be allowed your constitutional right to travel from one place to another freely.”
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez thinks D’Errico’s claims aren’t accurate.
“If you see the images, you’ll know it’s not a naked picture,” he said. “The passengers are selected at random and not because they’re celebrities.”
As far as her claims that the agents were smiling and whispering, Melendez said that people who are celebrities shouldn’t be surprised if and when they’re recognized.
But D’Errico says that even though she has a higher profile than other people, she fears other women may be victims of this invasion of privacy.
“This could, and I’m sure does, happen to other women,” she said. “It isn’t right to hide behind the veil of security and safety in order to take advantage of women, or even men for that matter, so that you can see them naked. It’s a misuse of power and authority, and as much a personal violation as a Peeping Tom. The difference is that Peeping Toms can have charges pressed against them.”
Melendez says that the agents who are looking at the scan are in a closed room and have no communication with anyone other than the person handling the machine.
“It could be a woman or a man,” he said.
D’Errico doesn’t know of any other actresses or models who’ve had the same experience, but she believes other more effective and less invasive security measures should be implemented.
“One of my best friends was flying to New York for business, and at some point during the flight, she stood up to retrieve something from her bag in the overhead compartment,” she said. “When she reached into her bag, something cut her hand. She looked into her bag and discovered a pair of 6-inch gardening shears which she had forgotten to remove prior to packing her bag.
“The bag, and my friend, had passed through security with no issues. How is this full-body scan supposed to be making us safer if 6-inch gardening shears can still make it aboard domestic flights undetected?”
November 1st, 2010
By: Lawrence Latif
Social notworking website Facebook has finally taken an appropriate stance against developers that sell personal data to third parties.
Following on from a Wall Street Journal investigation that uncovered the selling of user IDs (UIDs) to advertisers, Facebook first updated its API to encrypt UIDs and now says it discovered “instances where a data broker was paying developers for UIDs”. We’re wondering if Holmes had to ask the humble Watson to come up with that conclusion, especially since one marketeer all but admitted to this in the initial WSJ report.
Apparently Facebook determined that “no private user data was sold and confirmed that transfer of these UIDs did not give access to any private data”, but it did say that the sale of UIDs for cash racket was against its policy. The outfit said that it found less than a dozen developers that had been flogging UIDs for money and that it will be “instituting a 6-month full moratorium on their access to Facebook communication channels”. We presume that barring them from its communication channels means kicking them off Facebook altogether, but given that this is Facebook it could mean anything.
After six months the developers will have to submit their data practices for an audit to ensure compliance with Facebook’s policies. Of course this news only provides relief if you believe that Facebook’s policies secure your personal data in the first place.
As for the marketeer that spilled the beans in the WSJ report, well, Rapleaf has said that it will delete all UIDs and Facebook reports and has agreed not to engage in such activities on Facebook in the future. We’re not even sure that constitutes a slap on the wrist.
The message of personal privacy was muddied by Facebook’s Mike Vernal, who said, “we realize that developers may sometimes need a way to share a unique identifier outside of their application with permitted third parties, such as content partners, advertisers or other service providers.” So which is it? No flogging of UIDs, which apparently don’t give up personal information, or just flogging UIDs to advertisers as “approved” by Facebook. The right answer is apparently the one that makes Facebook and its partners the most money.
To enforce only “approved” UID profiteering, Facebook will require developers to use its UID anonymising APIs from 1 January 2011.
Of course Facebook knows that none of this will matter to the majority of its users, who seem to have complete disregard for their own privacy. However as the number of privacy breaches grows the company will become more acutely aware that avenues it might have thought were open for it to abuse users’ personal data are slowly being shut off.
Whether this will have an effect on the firm’s ability to generate revenue remains to be seen, but things certainly aren’t looking as easy as they might have a few years ago.
October 25th, 2010
By: Vanessa Allen
Google was accused of spying on households yesterday after it admitted secretly copying passwords and private emails from home computers.
The internet search giant was forced to confess it had downloaded personal data during its controversial Street View project, when it photographed virtually every street in Britain.
In an astonishing invasion of privacy, it admitted entire emails, web pages and even passwords were ‘mistakenly collected’ by antennae on its high-tech Street View cars.
Privacy campaigners accused the company of spying and branded its behaviour ‘absolutely scandalous’.
The Information Commissioner’s Office said it would launch a new investigation. Scotland Yard is already considering whether the company has broken the law.
Google executive Alan Eustace issued a grovelling apology and said the company was ‘mortified’, adding: ‘We’re acutely aware that we failed badly.’
Critics seized on the admission as the latest example of technology’s ever-expanding ability to harvest information about ordinary households, often without their knowledge or consent.
Google sent a fleet of specially equipped cars around Britain in 2008, armed with 360-degree cameras to gather photographs for its Street View project.
There were immediate complaints that the pictures were a security risk, after householders complained that house numbers and car registrations were easily identifiable.
Privacy fears followed when it emerged that individuals could be seen, including a man emerging from a sex shop in London’s Soho, three police officers arresting a man in Camden, North London, and children throwing stones at a house in Musselburgh, Scotland.
Earlier this year the California-based firm admitted that the cars’ antennae had also scanned for wireless networks, including home wi-fi, which connect millions of personal computers to the internet.
Google registered the location, name and identification code of millions of networks and entered them into a database to help it sell adverts.
The firm – which uses the slogan ‘Don’t be evil’ – was able to record the location of every wireless router and network without alerting households because wi-fi signals are ‘visible’ to other internet devices, including the cars’ antennae.
Google played down the significance of the wi-fi mapping and insisted it had not collected or stored data from personal computers.
It then backtracked and said its software had ‘inadvertently’ collected fragments of data which were being transmitted as the cars criss-crossed Britain.
The cars’ antennae skipped networks five times a second, it said, meaning each network was only accessed for one-fifth of a second.
But it has now emerged that entire emails, web pages and passwords were copied and stored during that split-second.
The information was only gathered from wireless networks which were not password-protected.
But it means the antennae potentially harvested millions of private emails and passwords around the country. It is not known how many householders have unprotected wireless networks.
April 6, 2010
The Associated Press
By: Don Babwin
When the body of Chicago’s school board president was found partially submerged in a river last fall, a bullet wound to the head, cameras helped prove it was a suicide.
Friends had speculated someone forced Michael Scott to drive to the river before shooting him — and maybe even wrapped his fingers around the trigger.
But within days, police recreated Scott’s 20-minute drive through the city using high-tech equipment that singled out his car on a succession of surveillance cameras, handing the image from camera to camera. The video didn’t capture Scott’s final moments, but it helped convince police his death was a suicide: He wasn’t followed. He wasn’t following anyone. He never picked up a passenger.
The investigation offered a riveting demonstration of the most extensive and sophisticated video surveillance system in the United States, and one that is transforming what it means to be in public in Chicago.
In less than a decade and with little opposition, the city has linked thousands of cameras — on street poles and skyscrapers, aboard buses and in train tunnels — in a network covering most of the city. Officials can watch video live at a sprawling emergency command center, police stations and even some squad cars.
“I don’t think there is another city in the U.S. that has as an extensive and integrated camera network as Chicago has,” said Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security secretary.
New York has plenty of cameras, but about half of the 4,300 installed along the city’s subways don’t work. Other cities haven’t been able to link networks like Chicago. Baltimore, for example, doesn’t integrate school cameras with its emergency system and it can’t immediately send 911 dispatchers video from the camera nearest to a call like Chicago can.
Even London — widely considered the world’s most closely watched city with an estimated 500,000 cameras — doesn’t incorporate private cameras in its system as Chicago does.
While critics decry the network as the biggest of Big Brother invasions of privacy, most Chicago residents accept them as a fact of life in a city that has always had a powerful local government and police force.
And authorities say the system helps them respond to emergencies in a way never before possible. A dispatcher can tell those racing to the scene how big a fire is or what a gunman looks like. If a package is left sitting next to a building for more than a few minutes, a camera can send an alert.
Cameras have recorded drug deals, bike thefts and a holiday bell ringer dipping his hand into a pot outside a downtown store. Footage from a camera on a city bus helped convince a suspected gang member to plead guilty to shooting a 16-year-old high school student in 2007.
In the death of the school board president, the cameras helped diffuse mounting suspicion and anger.
“It really closed that piece of the puzzle,” police Superintendent Jody Weis said. “We don’t know what was going through his head, but we definitely know he was alone.”
The network began less than a decade ago with a dozen cameras installed in Grant Park to deter violence during the annual Taste of Chicago festival. It now includes private cameras as well as those installed by a variety of public agencies.
While authorities won’t say exactly how many cameras are included, with 1,500 installed by emergency officials, 6,500 in city schools and many more at public and private facilities, nobody disputes an estimate of 10,000 and growing. Weis said he would like to add “covert” cameras, perhaps as small as matchboxes.
City officials from around the world have visited Chicago to see the system and how effective it is.
August 18, 2009
New York Times
By Andrew Pollack
Scientists in Israel have demonstrated that it is possible to fabricate DNA evidence, undermining the credibility of what has been considered the gold standard of proof in criminal cases.
The scientists fabricated blood and saliva samples containing DNA from a person other than the donor of the blood and saliva. They also showed that if they had access to a DNA profile in a database, they could construct a sample of DNA to match that profile without obtaining any tissue from that person.
“You can just engineer a crime scene,” said Dan Frumkin, lead author of the paper, which has been published online by the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. “Any biology undergraduate could perform this.”
Dr. Frumkin is a founder of Nucleix, a company based in Tel Aviv that has developed a test to distinguish real DNA samples from fake ones that it hopes to sell to forensics laboratories.
The planting of fabricated DNA evidence at a crime scene is only one implication of the findings. A potential invasion of personal privacy is another.
Using some of the same techniques, it may be possible to scavenge anyone’s DNA from a discarded drinking cup or cigarette butt and turn it into a saliva sample that could be submitted to a genetic testing company that measures ancestry or the risk of getting various diseases. Celebrities might have to fear “genetic paparazzi,” said Gail H. Javitt of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University.
Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, said the findings were worrisome.
“DNA is a lot easier to plant at a crime scene than fingerprints,” she said. “We’re creating a criminal justice system that is increasingly relying on this technology.”
John M. Butler, leader of the human identity testing project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said he was “impressed at how well they were able to fabricate the fake DNA profiles.” However, he added, “I think your average criminal wouldn’t be able to do something like that.”
The scientists fabricated DNA samples two ways. One required a real, if tiny, DNA sample, perhaps from a strand of hair or drinking cup. They amplified the tiny sample into a large quantity of DNA using a standard technique called whole genome amplification.
Of course, a drinking cup or piece of hair might itself be left at a crime scene to frame someone, but blood or saliva may be more believable.
The authors of the paper took blood from a woman and centrifuged it to remove the white cells, which contain DNA. To the remaining red cells they added DNA that had been amplified from a man’s hair.
Since red cells do not contain DNA, all of the genetic material in the blood sample was from the man. The authors sent it to a leading American forensics laboratory, which analyzed it as if it were a normal sample of a man’s blood.
The other technique relied on DNA profiles, stored in law enforcement databases as a series of numbers and letters corresponding to variations at 13 spots in a person’s genome.
From a pooled sample of many people’s DNA, the scientists cloned tiny DNA snippets representing the common variants at each spot, creating a library of such snippets. To prepare a DNA sample matching any profile, they just mixed the proper snippets together. They said that a library of 425 different DNA snippets would be enough to cover every conceivable profile.
Nucleix’s test to tell if a sample has been fabricated relies on the fact that amplified DNA — which would be used in either deception — is not methylated, meaning it lacks certain molecules that are attached to the DNA at specific points, usually to inactivate genes.