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The NYPD Wants Everyone’s Licenses for Facial Recognition. How Concerned Should You Be?

The mystery of a John or Jane Doe is a classic staple of TV mysteries and detective shows the world over. But if New York City’s police force has their way, unidentified persons — living or dead — will be a thing of the past. Completely.

Right now, the only way the NYPD can identify an unknown individual is if they’ve been arrested. But the Wall Street Journal reports that the NYPD’s Real Time Crime Center and Facial Identification Section are seeking access to the state’s database of driver’s licenses, which would expand their facial recognition capabilities to include millions of innocent drivers (along with criminal mugshots).

But, get this: It’s already happening in plenty of places. Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology discovered in 2016 that at least half of American adults are already searchable by license photos, as 26 states allow cops to search motor vehicle registries for matches. They also found that 16 states allow the FBI to do it, too.

That doesn’t make it any less unsettling, of course. After all, other places where facial recognition’s widely used (see: China) don’t exactly have spotless reputations for protecting civil rights. But how bad would it actually be if cops could identify anyone they wanted, at any time, anywhere in the world?

The Good

Despite the Black Mirror-esque nature of the proposition here, there are potentially positive upshots to all this. Besides the obvious benefit of identifying suspects in active investigations, this could:

  • Assist lost dementia patients. Such a system could identify lost adults with cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s, who might not know who they are or where they come from. One example: Wall Street Journal points out that this would have been useful in the 2014 case of a Staten Island woman with Alzheimer’s, who police found in 2014, and who could only be identified thanks to a minor traffic violation.
  • Identify the unidentified in hospitals. Facial recognition could help hospitals put names to unconscious patients who come in without ID, as well as John/Jane Doe cases. Connecting these individuals with their families could save them a lot of agony in wondering what happened/is happening to loved ones.
  • Spot criminals laying low. As The Verge notes, artificially intelligent systems in 43 states are already helping identify criminals who hide under an assumed name by picking out duplicate faces on licenses (held by people hiding under different names in different states). If systems like these were tied into police and FBI databases, their powers would only expand; for example, it could spot criminals who were never licensed in their home state, but who live under a different name elsewhere.

The Bad, Ugly, and Downright Dystopian

Of course, it wouldn’t shock you to learn that the privacy implications of widespread facial recognition in policing are enormous.

  • Chilling free speech. In recent years, the FBI’s copped to monitoring protests by groups like Black Lives Matter, in addition to parades, vigils, and other various (and perfectly legal) public gatherings. And if you’re even remotely familiar with the Bill of Rights, you’d know that the freedom to assemble peacefully is a fundamentally, inalienable right. But what if law enforcement could identify any person at these events just by looking at them? Consider places in which the relationship between the community and the police needs work; would people in these places still protest if they worried police would seek them out for doing so?
  • Perpetuating racial bias. You would think a computer — which, by definition, is race-less — would have no chance of being racist towards any particular group! But you’d be wrong. ‘Turns out that algorithms in many systems carry biases of the humans who programmed them — including, of course, facial recognition systems. A 2012 study found that six leading facial recognition algorithms were worse at matching black faces correctly, as opposed to Caucasians. And with that, there’s the massive potential for that to lead to…
  • Mistaken identity arrests. This one is undoubtedly nightmarish: mistaken facial recognition software has the potential to send innocent people to jail (just because they look like someone else). Unsurprisingly, facial recognition companies claim this is unlikely; the Georgetown report says that FaceFirst, which sells face recognition software to police, claims “an identification rate above 95%.” Yet the report also found that this figure was a decade old, and thus, likely, no longer valid. FaceFirst even puts language in some contracts protecting itself against potential mistakes, such as this line from a contract with the San Diego Association of Governments: “FaceFirst makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy and reliability of the product in the performance of its facial recognition capabilities.” How’s that for reassuring?

As the Georgetown report points out, identifying the flaws of this technology isn’t necessary a play to stop it. Law enforcement who want to use facial recognition ostensibly have good intentions, and regulators could step in to make sure this technology is used in compliance with regulations and laws; for example, to protect against potential false matches, the FBI only uses facial recognition for investigative leads, not as evidence in a prosecution.

Just like legislation had to be written to keep police from wiretapping when phones became a pedestrian household technology, facial recognition desperately needs guidelines and precedent set to prevent it from becoming part of a full-throttle dystopian law enforcement abuse in the future too — lest your face become a (literally) unwarranted legal liability.

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Havana Syndrome again? CIA officers are mowed down by a mysterious disease

A CIA officer in Moscow experienced symptoms of the so-called “Havana syndrome” in 2017. This became known to The New York Times with reference to sources in diplomatic circles.

CIA officer Mark Polimepulos, who helped lead covert operations in Russia and Europe, complained about the manifestation of mysterious symptoms. According to the newspaper, in December 2017, he felt severe dizziness, which later developed into a prolonged migraine, forcing him to retire. At that time, Polymerpoulos was 48 years old.

It is noted that such a case was not the only one. Similar symptoms were experienced by the staff of the American ambassadors in Cuba and China in 2016-2018. However, the exact number of cases and the place where this happened is not named. It is alleged that the US diplomats have tried to influence in a similar way around the world.

At the same time, the US State Department was unable to establish an unambiguous reason that caused the “Havana syndrome.” Among other things, it was assumed that the diplomats may have been exposed to an unidentified sound effect.

In 2017, it was reported that, beginning in late 2016, American diplomatic officials and their relatives in Cuba began to complain of symptoms such as hearing loss, nausea, headaches and balance disorder. 

The Associated Press received audio footage of the attack and described the harassing sounds as “the high-pitched sound of crickets combined with fingernails scratching on a board.” Then the American government suggested that Russia or China could be the culprit.

Many victims are still undergoing rehabilitation. Specialists from the University of Pennsylvania performed magnetic resonance imaging and revealed visible changes in the structure of the brain in the diplomatic missions.

Differences were found in 23 men and 17 women who complained of health problems while on diplomatic duties in Havana. Scientists have yet to figure out what causes the unusual symptoms.

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How Russia and the United States nearly started a nuclear war in 1995

The Norwegian meteorological rocket incident remains the only time in history that the Russian president has activated his nuclear briefcase.

On January 25, 1995, Doomsday could have come in the world: the Russian Federation was preparing to launch a nuclear strike on the United States. How did it come about that the states that left the confrontation of the Cold War in the past and had just normalized relations with each other found themselves on the verge of mutual destruction?

The beginning of the war?

The cause of the crisis was an ordinary Norwegian meteorological rocket. Its launch from the small island of Anneia at 7 am local time (10 am Moscow time) towards Spitsbergen caused a stir in Russia. 

Black Brant XII.

Black Brant XII. Legion Media / ZUMA Press

Equipped with scientific equipment to study the aurora borealis, the Black Brant XII was similar in size to the nuclear-powered American Trident D-5 ballistic missile, intended for launch from submarines. In addition, it flew along a trajectory along which, as the Russian Defense Ministry believed, American missiles would fly in the event of a nuclear war. 

In December 1994, Norway informed 28 states, including Russia, about the planned launch, but did not give a specific date, limiting itself to specifying the period: from January 15 to February 10 of the next year. Due to bureaucratic delays, this information did not reach the Russian Missile Warning System, which sounded the alarm.

Decisive minutes

An emergency meeting with the country’s top political and military leadership was convened in the Kremlin. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Chief of the General Staff Mikhail Kolesnikov and President of the Russian Federation (as Supreme Commander-in-Chief) Boris Yeltsin had three strategic missile forces control terminals activated – the so-called nuclear suitcases.

Vladimir Sayapin / TASS

The military believed the lone missile could have been fired to create an electromagnetic pulse that knocked out Russian radars and communications systems. Following it, a massive blow could be expected.

For several tense minutes, as leaders watched it flight, it was decided whether Russia would launch a nuclear strike against the United States. 

“Little is known today about what Yeltsin said at the time, given that it could have been some of the most dangerous moments in the entire history of the nuclear era,” The Washington Post journalist, David Hoffman wrote three years after the incident : “They make it clear that the Cold War nuclear readiness system continues to operate, and how catastrophic its consequences could be, despite the fact that the feud between the great powers is already over.”   

The situation was discharged only when it became clear that the rocket had gone towards Spitsbergen (not far from which it fell into the ocean). The nuclear cases have been deactivated. Russian President Boris Yeltsin (center) and Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev (right).

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (center) and Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev (right). Igor Mikhalev / Sputnik

The incident with bringing Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces to combat readiness, soon became the property of the world community. When, four years later, the Norwegians were about to repeat their launch of Black Brant XII and reported this to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the US additionally warned all key Russian military departments about it through their channels. As a result, this time there were no unpleasant surprises. 


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Germany conducted exercises in case of nuclear war

Bundeswehr / Birthe Brechters

The Bundeswehr with partners in the North Atlantic Alliance ( NATO) trained in operations in a nuclear war.

The German army, together with Italian, Belgian and Dutch colleagues, conducted exercises in the event of a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons.

The location of the exercise “Steadfest Noon” was chosen airbase “Nörfenich”, where the tactical squadron of the Luftwaffe 31 “Boelcke” is located. Together with the Luftwaffe of the Bundeswehr, the air forces of other NATO countries, in particular, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, took part in the exercises.

According to a report by Bild, the exercise scenario involved training procedures for safely removing nuclear weapons from storage, delivering ammunition and installing them on aircraft. The training flights took place without nuclear weapons, and in parallel with the aviation exercises at the Büchel airbase, where the tactical squadron of the Luftwaffe 51 Immelman is located, the Resilient Guard air defense systems were trained to protect the airfield from air attacks.

The training sites for the Luftwaffe of the Bundeswehr were not chosen by chance, since the Nörfenich airbase is a reserve storage site for the B61, a hydrogen bomb that forms the basis of nuclear weapons of the US strategic nuclear forces. 

Some of this ammunition is stationed at NATO bases in Europe. The exact number of hydrogen bombs that are stored at European sites and which ones are not reported. In Europe, the B61 is carried by Panavia Tornado fighter-bombers (pictured) and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters.

Recall that the B61 thermonuclear bomb is the main weapon of the US strategic nuclear forces, although it entered service in 1968. Since 2012, a new guided version of the B61-12 has been under development, which will replace all B61 and B83 bombs that have been in service since 1983. It can be used both on strategic bombers and tactical aircraft. About two billion dollars were spent on the development of the 12th modification of the aerial bomb.

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