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The pandemic is testing the limits of face recognition

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The pandemic is testing the limits of face recognition


More and more, it’s being used in what’s presented as the interest of public health. Australia recently expanded a program using facial recognition to enforce covid-19 safety precautions. People who are quarantining are subject to random check-ins, in which they’re required to send a selfie to confirm they are following rules. Location data is also collected, according to Reuters.

When it comes to essentials like emergency benefits to pay for housing and food, the first priority should be making sure everyone is able to access help, Greer says. Preventing fraud is a reasonable objective on the surface, she adds, but the most pressing goal must be to get people the benefits they need. 

“Systems have to be built with human rights and with vulnerable people’s needs in mind from the start. Those can’t be afterthoughts,” Greer says. “They can’t be bug fixes after it already goes wrong.”

ID.me’s Hall says his company’s services are preferable to the existing methods of verifying identity and have helped states cut down on “massive” unemployment fraud since implementing face verification checks. He says unemployment claims have around a 91% true pass rate—either on their own or through a video call with an ID.me representative. 

“[That] was our goal going in,” he says. “If we could automate away 91% of this, then the states that are just outgunned in terms of resources can use those resources to provide white-glove concierge service to the 9%.”

When users are not able to get through the face recognition process, ID.me emails them to follow up, according to Hall. 

“Everything about this company is about helping people get access to things they’re eligible for,” he says.

Tech in the real world

The months that JB survived without income were difficult. The financial worry was enough to cause stress, and other troubles like a broken computer compounded the anxiety. Even their former employer couldn’t or wouldn’t help cut through the red tape. 

“It’s very isolating to be like, ‘No one is helping me in any situation,’” JB says.

On the government side, experts say it makes sense that the pandemic brought new technology to the forefront, but cases like JB’s show that technology in itself is not the whole answer. Anne L. Washington, an assistant professor of data policy at New York University, says it’s tempting to consider a new government technology a success when it works most of the time during the research phase but fails 5% of the time in the real world. She compares the result to a game of musical chairs, where in a room of 100 people, five will always be left without a seat. 

“The problem is that governments get some kind of technology and it works 95% of the time—they think it’s solved,” she says. Instead, human intervention becomes more important than ever. Says Washington: “They need a system to regularly handle the five people who are standing.”

There’s an additional layer of risk when a private company is involved. The biggest issue that arises in the rollout of a new kind of technology is where the data is kept, Washington says. Without a trusted entity that has the legal duty to protect people’s information, sensitive data could end up in the hands of others. How would we feel, for example, if the federal government had entrusted a private company with our Social Security numbers when they were created? 

“The problem is that governments get some kind of technology and it works 95% of the time—they think it’s solved”

Anne L. Washington, New York University

Widespread and unchecked use of face recognition tools also has the potential to affect already marginalized groups more than others. Transgender people, for example, have detailed, frequent problems with tools like Google Photos, which may question whether pre- and post-transition photos show the same person. It means reckoning with the software over and over.

“[There’s] inaccuracy in technology’s ability to reflect the breadth of actual diversity and edge cases there are in the real world,” says Daly Barnett, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We can’t rely on them to accurately classify and compute and reflect those beautiful edge cases.”

Worse than failure

Conversations about face recognition typically debate how the technology could fail or discriminate. But Barnett encourages people to think beyond whether the biometric tools work or not, or whether bias show up in the technology. She pushes back on the idea that we need them at all. Indeed, activists like Greer warn, the tools could be even more dangerous when they work perfectly. Face recognition has already been used to identify, punish, or stifle protesters, though people are fighting back. In Hong Kong, protesters wore masks and goggles to hide their faces from such police surveillance. In the US, federal prosecutors dropped charges against a protester identified using face recognition who had been accused of assaulting police officers. 

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A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry

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A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry


China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.

The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.

The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals. 

In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma. 

Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas. 

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The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.

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The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.


The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.

Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”


The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.

A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs. 

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there. 

This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.

Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor,  and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes. 

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”

However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.

In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.

We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. 

The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.

Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity. 

Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.

Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.

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