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The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of

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The Download: China’s possible surveillance sanctions, and hacking locusts


For example, the research found 55,455 Hikvision networks in London. “From my experience of just walking around London, it would probably be several times over that. They’re in almost every supermarket,” says Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at Top10VPN who carried out the study.

The prevalence of Hikvision cameras overseas has caused anxieties around national security, even though it hasn’t been proved that the company transfers its overseas data back to China. In 2019, the US passed a bill banning Hikvision from holding any contracts with the federal government.

What really made Hikvision infamous on the global stage was its involvement in China’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang against Muslim minorities, mostly Uyghurs. Numerous surveillance cameras, many equipped with advanced facial recognition, have been installed both inside and outside the detention camps in Xinjiang to aid the government’s control over the region. And Hikvision has been a big part of this activity. The company was found to have received at least $275 million in government contracts to build surveillance in the region and has developed AI cameras that can detect physical features of Uyghur ethnicity. 

Presented with questions about Xinjiang by MIT Technology Review, Hikvision responded with a statement that did not address them directly but said the company “has and will continue to strictly comply with applicable laws and regulations in the countries where we operate, following internationally accepted business ethics and business standards.”

“The ways [companies like Hikvision] are able to hold people in place through the checkpoints and face recognition systems have turned the entire region, from the Uyghur perspective at least, into a flexible [but] closed system. They often talk about it as an open-air prison,” says Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University and the author of In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony. “And that really wouldn’t be possible without these tech companies.”

Uncharted waters

Adding Hikvision to the SDN would do more than ratchet up tensions between the US and China—it would open up a new front in international sanctions, one in which tech companies increasingly find themselves embroiled in geopolitical power struggles.

People could be criminally prosecuted for working or doing business with the company once the sanction is announced, says Healy: “[Hikvision] can no longer interact with the US dollar or the US financial system. And other banks and other financial institutions around the world, generally speaking, will also not do business with you, because they want to maintain their access to the US dollar and to US financial markets.” 

At the very least, this would mean Hikvision wouldn’t be able to sell its cameras outside China, and its international revenues would fall to zero. But it’s unclear whether governments and companies already using Hikvision cameras would be asked to replace them immediately. Then things get even trickier when it comes to the Hikvision services beyond the hardware. Can current Hikvision users accept software updates from the company? Use the company’s cloud storage? “That’s exactly the kind of thing [the US government] might make an exception for here,” says Healy, because traditional enforcement of the SDN list may become impractical in the digital era. 

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The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China

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The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China


Fashion creator Jenni Svoboda is designing a beanie with a melted cupcake top, sprinkles, and doughnuts for ears. But this outlandish accessory isn’t destined for the physical world—Svoboda is designing for the metaverse. She’s working in a burgeoning, if bizarre, new niche: fashion stylists who create or curate outfits for people in virtual spaces.

Metaverse stylists are increasingly sought-after as frequent users seek help dressing their avatars—often in experimental, wildly creative looks that defy personal expectations, societal standards, and sometimes even physics. 

Stylists like Svoboda are among those shaping the metaverse fashion industry, which is already generating hundreds of millions of dollars. But while, to the casual observer, it can seem outlandish and even obscene to spend so much money on virtual clothes, there are deeper, more personal, reasons why people are hiring professionals to curate their virtual outfits. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Making sense of the changes to China’s zero-covid policy

On December 1, 2019, the first known covid-19 patient started showing symptoms in Wuhan. Three years later, China is the last country in the world holding on to strict pandemic control restrictions. However, after days of intense protests that shocked the world, it looks as if things could finally change.

Beijing has just announced wide-ranging relaxations of its zero covid policy, including allowing people to quarantine at home instead of in special facilities for the first time.

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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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