A dystopian vision for law enforcement

January 21, 2020

The Hustle

Think-piece machine, activate! The 50th anniversary edition of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting kicks off this morning in Davos. On the agenda: climate change. Oh, and the event’s perpetual struggle to not look completely out of touch. Today:

  • A facial-recognition app causes a stir
  • New plastics are what people prefer
  • And grim news for the foie connoisseur
The Hustle Daily Email

Gaze into the dystopian future of law enforcement

The maker of a powerful facial-recognition tool says hundreds of law-enforcement agencies are using its technology to blaze new trails in the fight against crime. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, apparently. The New York Times’s report on an obscure startup called Clearview AI reads like a subplot from a Batman flick.

Here’s how Clearview works

Clearview says its app stands out because it allows users to search through a database of 3B+ publicly available images, far more than the FBI or other agencies have on file.

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Take a picture of a person and upload it, and the app links the image to other photos of the same person, scraped from sites like Facebook and YouTube.

The company’s founder even acknowledged creating a prototype that would allow the app to be paired with augmented-reality glasses, to potentially identify people in real time. (When the Times asked about it, he said the company had no plans to release said prototype.)

Police officials say Clearview has helped them identify suspects, sometimes in a matter of seconds. But there are reasons to believe the technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

For starters, there’s no way to tell if it’s accurate…

Studies have shown that facial-recognition algorithms often misidentify women and people of color, leading to false positives.

Security is another worry. In China, information on thousands of schoolchildren was stored in a facial-recognition database without protection, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

Some lawmakers are responding by proposing bills that would regulate law enforcement’s use of facial-recognition tech, or in some cases, ban it altogether.

Those bans might not really work

Bruce Schneier, an expert on privacy, says outright prohibitions on facial-recognition tech won’t be enough. 

That’s because your face isn’t the only thing that can identify you — so can your gait, your heartbeat, or the digital fingerprint of your cellphone. 

Until we “decide how much we as a society want to be spied on by governments and corporations,” he writes, we’re missing the point.

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Amazon hand print image

Amazon continues its War on Friction by letting people pay with the palms of their hands

Amazon is building in-store checkout terminals that can scan customers’ hands instead of their credit cards, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The company is working with Visa (and in talks with Mastercard) to build out this system, which will require customers to link their hands with debit/credit cards once… and then allow them to simply wave their hands to make purchases thereafter.

You’ve gotta hand it to Amazon…

They really are creative when it comes to convenience.

Jeff Bezos — the King of Convenience, the major-domo of marginal dollars — is constantly looking for ways to make it easier for his customers to spend money by reducing friction

This palm program is a classic example: Hand scans eliminate the slight inconvenience of scanning a phone or (gasp) swiping a credit card — and therefore make it marginally easier to spend cash.

Amazon’s entire empire is built on frictions found and then phased out: 

  1. Standing in line. Solution? Amazon Go stores allow customers to shop without checking out.
  2. Entering your info online. Solution? Amazon 1-Click ordering allows customers to order with a single click and avoid entering their info.
  3. Living in a sh*tty apartment. Solution? Amazon Hub allows customers to pick up packages at lockers, and Amazon Key allows customers to remotely let Amazon into their cars and houses to drop off packages.
  4. Forgetting to reorder. Solution? Amazon Dash allows customers to automatically restock supplies with Smart Shelves or verbally command Dash Wands or other Alexa-connected devices to reorder items (Amazon Dash buttons were discontinued). 
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bioplastic image

Plastic has a dirty reputation. Can bioplastics clean it up?

Put down that plastic bag and pick up that Parkesine.

The English inventor Alexander Parkes is credited with creating one of the earliest forms of plant-based plastic, way back in the mid-19th century.

Parkes died in 1890, but if he were still around today, he’d be at the forefront of a serious trend.

One word: bioplastics

Troy Farah explored the ascendance of alternative plastics for Ars Technica. He found a market with major potential. Big oil companies are ramping up plastic production as consumers and governments consider a future free of fossil fuels.

A European trade group estimates that bioplastics currently make up just 1% of the 350m+ metric tons of plastic produced each year, but demand is rising rapidly.

It’s not hard to see why. Single-use items like plastic straws are going out of fashion fast — the European Parliament passed a law to ban them by 2021. Last week, Loliware, a purveyor of kelp-based plastics, snagged a $6m investment.

But it’s not easy being green

Here’s the catch: The term “bioplastic” can refer to a wide range of materials. Some of them don’t actually have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional plastics, Farah found. 

It matters if plastics are made from renewable sources. But here’s what matters more: Can those products actually biodegrade? If not, that plastic Coke bottle might still take ages to break down.

» Plastic fantastic
Tesla image

Investors squabble over the true value of Tesla

The Wall Street Journal divided Tesla shareholders into two “warring camps” that are responsible for sending trading volumes skyward. 

Share prices are up 22% in the first few weeks of 2020 alone, and the company’s market value is now north of $90B — more than GM and Ford combined. But not everyone is sold:

  • Tesla’s supporters believe the futuristic automaker could upend an entire industry
  • Its detractors think the company’s prospects are overrated, since it’s never posted an annual profit

One investor’s take: Bob Browne, chief investment officer for Northern Trust Asset Management, told the Journal that he decided not to dive into the fray.

“Investors are diametrically opposed when it comes to Tesla,” he said. “You have to be careful before jumping into that gunfight.”

Here’s something else you should be careful of…

Allegations that Tesla vehicles may suddenly accelerate on their own. CNBC reported last week that federal regulators were looking into such complaints.

The investor who flagged the problem is currently shorting Tesla’s stock. Tesla called the investor’s petition “completely false.”

» Place your bets
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New York’s ban on fancy foie gras is a good deal for ducks… but a big blow to farmers

A few months ago, New York City banned foie gras — the luxury liver dish made by force-feeding ducks — at restaurants across the city. 

Following in the footsteps of other places like California, the UK, India, and Israel (and companies including Whole Foods and Postmates), New York’s ban was hailed as a victory by animal-rights activists, who have long considered foie gras inhumane.

But the ban also had the unintended consequence of gutting the economy of the rural county in upstate New York that produces nearly all of America’s foie gras.

In Sullivan County, New York, liver isn’t a luxury… 

It’s the bedrock of the local economy. 

The 2 main foie gras farms sell $38m of the fatty livers per year, employing 400 workers (mostly immigrants) and driving demand for local machine shops, feed farms, and farmworker-frequented restaurants. 

But once the ban goes into effect in 2022, that chain could collapse

Most foie gras farmworkers (many of whom also live on the farms) have few, if any other, employment options if the industry goes belly up. 

And to make matters worse, since both farms host residential drug treatment centers, their closure could cause a decrease in the already scarce medical resources available to combat the opioid epidemic in Sullivan County.

» An unexpected aftertaste
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