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Category Archives: Communications

Hide Your face, shield your eyes! The dark side of biometrics

The use of facial recognition is not something that only comes from totalitarian regimes. It’s being used for domestic spying, in malls and casinos. Combined with AI, biometrics can turn PI (Personal information) and PII (personally identifiable information) into a weapon. I bring this up every semester to make sure my students are aware of what they are opening themselves to, should they share information even on benign sites, or “trusted” browsers.

Biometrics involve “biological measurements” such as fingerprints, facial features, and retina scans. The Department of Homeland Security, explains that “biometrics are used to detect and prevent illegal entry into the U.S., grant and administer proper immigration benefits, vetting and credentialing, facilitating legitimate travel and trade, enforcing federal laws, and enabling verification for visa applications to the U.S.” You would think biometrics is something average citizens only need to worry about if they own a passport (the new ones have an embedded chip with biometric markers), or a smart phone with facial recognition.

But biometric detection is coming closer to us than we realize. Kaspersky, the software cybersecurity company explain how “Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill downloaded photos of 20 volunteers from social media and used them to construct 3-D models of their faces. The researchers successfully breached four of the five security systems they tested.” Rental cars may soon come with biometric analyzers. Cities may use facial recognition without our knowledge as a pre-emptive way to assist law enforcement.

More alarming is the use of ‘public domain’ images to fuel the facial recognition business. The New York Times reports that family photos scrubbed off Flicker have been used to power surveillance technology. Hiding our faces, or making sure our children’s faces don’t show up in unscrupulous social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook may become a necessity. Or is it too late for those who have uploaded hundreds of photos to these leaky sites? As I warned manhttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/11/technology/flickr-facial-recognition.htmly times here and elsewhere these sites are “free” for a reason – they trade the data and meta-data of these posts and pictures without your knowledge. Digital human trafficking, in which many of us have become unwilling accomplices.

Interesting controversy. Tiffany and Co had to withdraw an ad that had a model covering her right eye. Why? It was accused of imitating the symbol of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where protestors routinely cover their face, or eyes with a mask or helmet so as to avoid facial recognition cameras.  In fact, the mock eye patch has itself become a symbol of the protest.

 

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2019 in Communications, Social Media

 

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Ugh! “Face Forensics” and “synthetic speech” creep into our vocabulary

I have been looking at the swirling issues around Deepfake technology. Much of this is still under the radar, but possibly under investigation by players that range from tech forensic companies, to governments, and those developing AI.

I’m glad Google has stepped into the breach. Google declared yesterday that it has partnered with an organization involved in ‘Face Forensics’ and another group that was formerly one of its experimental subsidiaries. How quickly the language of the Web changes. We just got comfortable with cyber-security, botnets and ransomware! This story is worth keeping tabs on.

 

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2019 in Communications

 

Cutting out “empty words”: Presentations this week in class

This week, my students are preparing their 12-slide presentation for a project titled, “The Future is Now.”

This is the culmination of a research project and a 3-page report based on Google’s Moonshot program. But it’s not just about creating the content and formatting the slides. I tell my students that they happen to be in “a communications class that pretends to be a computer class”. This week they are watching a TED talk by a 12-year old. But there is another student worth watching this week, Greta Thunberg,  the 16-year old activist from Sweden.

She railed against the grown-ups in the room, for stealing this generation’s childhood with their “empty words.” Speaking of Feedback loops, risks, and tipping points, her emotionally-charged speech warned that “change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

UN Envoy, Sri Lankan, Jayathma Wickramanayake, called climate change “the defining issue of our time. Millions of young people all over the world are already being affected by it.”

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2019 in Activism, Communications, Education

 

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Photo-Ops that didn’t change history

When a US president shakes hands with another leader it’s pure theatre. These photo ops then become legacy shots –timestamps of a presidency. Just like when Richard Nixon met Zhou Enlai in 1972, now a milestone of a major diplomatic overture.

But these photo ops have a mixed meaning around the time they’re taken. Some seem to do it just for the symbolism – somewhat like teenagers taking selfies in front of a coffee shop to seek validation among their followers.

Donald Trump,Kim Jong Un

In my September column, I feature 5 Photo-Ops that have taken on new meaning by now, but have not been treated kindly by history.

  • 1456876549762Adolph Hitler and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, 1938
  • George W. Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln, 1 May, 2003
  • Richard Branson, October 2011
  • Dennis Rodman, 2013
  • Donald Trump and Kim Kim Jong-Un, 30 June 2019

Read the article here.

 

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2019 in Communications

 

Eavesdropping is a nice way of saying ‘spying’.

It comes as no surprise that the Amazon Echo speaker is listening more closely than people think. Let’s be clear: It’s not listening in, it’s eavesdropping. The word has been around for more than 300 years! It describes the act of someone secretly “listening under the eaves” to another.

Alexa is supposed to be in ‘listening mode’ only when the speaker is addressed. Last week, however, Amazon confirmed that some of its employees did listen to recorded conversations. Employees! Not Amazon’s software. Are you comfortable with that? Some folks secretly listening in under the Artificial Intelligence eaves? Oh sure, for ‘quality and training purposes’?only. All in the interest of Big Data. The Atlantic reports that millions of people are using a smart speaker, and many have more than one close by. (Read it: Alexa, should we trust you?”)

In May last year, the speaker recorded a conversation of a husband and wife and sent it to a friend. I wrote about a related matter a few weeks back. I’ll never be comfortable with a piece of hardware sitting in a room just there to listen to me. The Bloomberg article reports that some employees at Amazon listen to 1,000 clips of recordings per shift. Like some privatized surveillance company, laughing at all the conversations going on behind closed doors. Beyond eavesdropping, it is audio voyeurism! Aren’t you troubled by that?

We were once alarmed by having too many cameras aimed at us. Now it’s listening devices. Does the convenience factor blunt people to the privacy they give up?

 

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Unplanned. Powerful message about a disgusting industry

You can’t watch the movie Unplanned and be the same. The morality and the ethics of abortion are disgusting, even if you didn’t factor in the bloody scenes.

On the level of communication, the movie (predictably critiqued by much of the media) exposes how the industry works, manipulating a message. Clinics like these have business goals which must be reached (to keep corporate bosses happy). Their ‘customers’ are young women – children, mostly — at a vulnerable point of their lives.

To hear Abby Johnson the central character in the movie (a director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who quit) explain it, distortion is actually what the other side does well.

Watch her in real life speak to a congressional committee, using similar, powerful arguments heard in the movie.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2019 in Communications

 

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Things I get to hear about Alexa and Google Home!

Sure, you often hear of fancy ‘life hacks’ about people who program their smart speaker to turn on a coffee maker or help with math homework. But the stories I get to hear from young people on the experimental edge of the home-based Internet-of-Things (IOT) phenomenon range from the hilarious to the unsettling.

I’ve been writing about IOT for some time now. What gets me is how quickly people appear to want to hand off simple tasks like opening one’s window blinds, or turning on an appliance

“Alexa, turn on the bedroom fan!”

And then there’s the not-so-funny side to having an app for everything. Just take a look at the recent lawsuits and missteps by tech companies.

The baby monitor story is scary. A mother discovered to her horror that the baby monitor “was slowly panning over across the room to where our bed was and stopped.” That’s just one of the ‘things” we want our smart homes connected to.

How about door locks? You can’t make this stuff up: A man wearing a Batman T-shirt was  locked out of his home in September last year when his Yale lock, combined with his Nest security system thought he was an intruder. The man was in a Batman T-shirt. The ‘smart’ doorbell identified the cartoon character and tried to be too smart for the man’s liking. Sound a lot like the command, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Poor Dave was locked out with, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

A side note on Facebook sneaky habit. As explained at Endgadget, “Privacy International study has determined that ‘at least’ 20 out of 34 popular Android apps are transmitting sensitive information to Facebook without asking permission, including Kayak, MyFitnessPal, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor. I don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg anymore. Neither his recent statement, nor his other numerous apologies. (Check last year’s apology!)  Which is another reason why I quit FB earlier this month.

 
 

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