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Successes and failures in Israel’s vaccination efforts.

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Hadas Ziv


Hadas Ziv, head of policy
and ethics at Physicians for
Human Rights-Israel

Israel was originally praised for its approach to covid-19 vaccine distribution, and was hailed as a model for how to get things done. But the picture that has emerged since is a lot more complicated. Covid-19 infections have reached record highs, and a new lockdown has been extended until the end of January. Meanwhile, there is inequality and political turmoil behind the headlines, with the UN among those criticizing Israel for refusing to share its vaccines with some 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

We spoke with Hadas Ziv, the head of policy and ethics at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, about that country’s successes and setbacks. She was part of the expert team that presented covid-19 vaccine policy recommendations to the Israeli government, and the group was among those petitioning for prisoners to be vaccinated. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: If you’re an Israeli citizen who wants a vaccine, what steps do you need to take?

A: It’s very easy. You’re notified that you’re eligible, either by an SMS, or you can just go into the site of your [healthcare provider], and immediately you see whether you’re eligible or not.

You make an appointment on the internet, or they can send you a link to your phone. It’s very, very organized. And you just get the vaccine. That’s it.

Q: Is the vaccine free? Have there been any hurdles or confusing rollout processes?

A: The positive side of Israel is that we have a public health system, and everyone, all residents, are insured. So unless you’re in a specific group, like migrant workers or refugees or Palestinians in the occupied territories, you’re insured, and you’re part of the system. 

Q: Are you seeing problems around vaccine hesitancy or refusal?

A: I think that, in general, Israelis trust vaccines. There were a few conspiracy theories in the media, which made people think whether they should wait to see how it goes for those who are being vaccinated. But I think the fear of the disease is bigger than the fear of the vaccine, and the publicity that the vaccine is safe persuaded many. 

We have specific communities [like some ultraorthodox and Arab communities] where there is less trust and information. There should be an effort made by both the health system and the government to persuade and make the information accessible for them so they come and get the vaccinations.

Q:  Israel was seen as a model for the rest of the world in speedy vaccine distribution. But cases have been rising, and the country is in another lockdown. What does that tell us about the role vaccines play in overcoming the pandemic?

A: There’s a positive and a negative in the vaccination [process]. It was speedy—Israel acted like many other Western countries, in what is known as a trend of vaccination nationalism. Each country for its own. 

We have not solved the compliance of the public. There are big differences between different communities in Israel, and we do not enjoy social solidarity. For example, the ultraorthodox are a little bit above 10% of the population but 30% of new cases of covid-19. There is a danger that once you say this community does not obey the social distancing or cannot because of [social conditions] that there is a lot of public anger toward them. That may even deepen the social conflict within our society. 

If you do want to achieve herd protection, you need to reach at least two-thirds of your population. If we do not reach those communities that are now not likely to want the vaccination, we will not reach this number. 

Q. The government and Pfizer agreed to trade medical data for doses of vaccines. What’s the impact of that? Was the public given enough information on the details of this agreement?

We got a special agreement from Pfizer, and when they publicized the agreement, at least one-third of it was blackened out. And I think it’s done more damage than good, because now we don’t know how much information they get on us.

If indeed Israel is leading in vaccinating its population, and you do want to learn about the efficacy and adverse effects, why not give this information for free for all the health ministries and systems and laboratories? It’s a global challenge. Why make Pfizer the only one with this knowledge? I don’t know. This is something that we are trying to look into.

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Uber’s facial recognition is locking Indian drivers out of their accounts 

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Uber checks that a driver’s face matches what the company has on file through a program called “Real-Time ID Check.” It was rolled out in the US in 2016, in India in 2017, and then in other markets. “This prevents fraud and protects drivers’ accounts from being compromised. It also protects riders by building another layer of accountability into the app to ensure the right person is behind the wheel,” Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, said in a statement in 2017.

But the company’s driver verification procedures are far from seamless. Adnan Taqi, an Uber driver in Mumbai, ran into trouble with it when the app prompted him to take a selfie around dusk. He was locked out for 48 hours, a big dent in his work schedule—he says he drives 18 hours straight, sometimes as much as 24 hours, to be able to make a living. Days later, he took a selfie that locked him out of his account again, this time for a whole week. That time, Taqi suspects, it came down to hair: “I hadn’t shaved for a few days and my hair had also grown out a bit,” he says. 

More than a dozen drivers interviewed for this story detailed instances of having to find better lighting to avoid being locked out of their Uber accounts. “Whenever Uber asks for a selfie in the evenings or at night, I’ve had to pull over and go under a streetlight to click a clear picture—otherwise there are chances of getting rejected,” said Santosh Kumar, an Uber driver from Hyderabad. 

Others have struggled with scratches on their cameras and low-budget smartphones. The problem isn’t unique to Uber. Drivers with Ola, which is backed by SoftBank, face similar issues. 

Some of these struggles can be explained by natural limitations in face recognition technology. The software starts by converting your face into a set of points, explains Jernej Kavka, an independent technology consultant with access to Microsoft’s Face API, which is what Uber uses to power Real-Time ID Check. 

Adnan Taqi holds up his phone in the driver’s seat of his car. Variations in lighting and facial hair have likely caused him to lose access to the app.

SELVAPRAKASH LAKSHMANAN

“With excessive facial hair, the points change and it may not recognize where the chin is,” Kavka says. The same thing happens when there is low lighting or the phone’s camera doesn’t have a good contrast. “This makes it difficult for the computer to detect edges,” he explains.

But the software may be especially brittle in India. In December 2021, tech policy researchers Smriti Parsheera (a fellow with the CyberBRICS project) and Gaurav Jain (an economist with the International Finance Corporation) posted a preprint paper that audited four commercial facial processing tools—Amazon’s Rekognition, Microsoft Azure’s Face, Face++, and FaceX—for their performance on Indian faces. When the software was applied to a database of 32,184 election candidates, Microsoft’s Face failed to even detect the presence of a face in more than 1,000 images, throwing an error rate of more than 3%—the worst among the four. 

It could be that the Uber app is failing drivers because its software was not trained on a diverse range of Indian faces, Parsheera says. But she says there may be other issues at play as well. “There could be a number of other contributing factors like lighting, angle, effects of aging, etc.,” she explained in writing. “But the lack of transparency surrounding the use of such systems makes it hard to provide a more concrete explanation.” 

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones


One evening in February last year, a 23-year-old Uber driver named Niradi Srikanth was getting ready to start another shift, ferrying passengers around the south Indian city of Hyderabad. He pointed the phone at his face to take a selfie to verify his identity. The process usually worked seamlessly. But this time he was unable to log in.

Srikanth suspected it was because he had recently shaved his head. After further attempts to log in were rejected, Uber informed him that his account had been blocked. He is not alone. In a survey conducted by MIT Technology Review of 150 Uber drivers in the country, almost half had been either temporarily or permanently locked out of their accounts because of problems with their selfie.

Hundreds of thousands of India’s gig economy workers are at the mercy of facial recognition technology, with few legal, policy or regulatory protections. For workers like Srikanth, getting blocked from or kicked off a platform can have devastating consequences. Read the full story.

—Varsha Bansal

I met a police drone in VR—and hated it

Police departments across the world are embracing drones, deploying them for everything from surveillance and intelligence gathering to even chasing criminals. Yet none of them seem to be trying to find out how encounters with drones leave people feeling—or whether the technology will help or hinder policing work.

A team from University College London and the London School of Economics is filling in the gaps, studying how people react when meeting police drones in virtual reality, and whether they come away feeling more or less trusting of the police. 

MIT Technology Review’s Melissa Heikkilä came away from her encounter with a VR police drone feeling unnerved. If others feel the same way, the big question is whether these drones are effective tools for policing in the first place. Read the full story.

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter covering AI and its effects on society. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

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I met a police drone in VR—and hated it

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I met a police drone in VR—and hated it


It’s important because police departments are racing way ahead and starting to use drones anyway, for everything from surveillance and intelligence gathering to chasing criminals.

Last week, San Francisco approved the use of robots, including drones that can kill people in certain emergencies, such as when dealing with a mass shooter. In the UK most police drones have thermal cameras that can be used to detect how many people are inside houses, says Pósch. This has been used for all sorts of things: catching human traffickers or rogue landlords, and even targeting people holding suspected parties during covid-19 lockdowns

Virtual reality will let the researchers test the technology in a controlled, safe way among lots of test subjects, Pósch says.

Even though I knew I was in a VR environment, I found the encounter with the drone unnerving. My opinion of these drones did not improve, even though I’d met a supposedly polite, human-operated one (there are even more aggressive modes for the experiment, which I did not experience.)  

Ultimately, it may not make much difference whether drones are “polite”  or “rude” , says Christian Enemark, a professor at the University of Southampton, who specializes in the ethics of war and drones and is not involved in the research. That’s because the use of drones itself is a “reminder that the police are not here, whether they’re not bothering to be here or they’re too afraid to be here,” he says.

“So maybe there’s something fundamentally disrespectful about any encounter.”

Deeper Learning

GPT-4 is coming, but OpenAI is still fixing GPT-3

The internet is abuzz with excitement about AI lab OpenAI’s latest iteration of its famous large language model, GPT-3. The latest demo, ChatGPT, answers people’s questions via back-and-forth dialogue. Since its launch last Wednesday, the demo has crossed over 1 million users. Read Will Douglas Heaven’s story here. 

GPT-3 is a confident bullshitter and can easily be prompted to say toxic things. OpenAI says it has fixed a lot of these problems with ChatGPT, which answers follow-up questions, admits its mistakes, challenges incorrect premises, and rejects inappropriate requests. It even refuses to answer some questions, such as how to be evil, or how to break into someone’s house. 



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