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COMMENTARY: Big tech needs to sound the alarm on face recognition

MINNESOTA SPOKESMAN-RECORDER — History has taught us that given the opportunity, governments will exploit new surveillance technologies.

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By Nicole Ozer

A top Google executive recently sent a shot across the bow of its competitors regarding face surveillance. Kent Walker, the company’s general counsel and senior vice president of global affairs, made it clear that Google — unlike Amazon and Microsoft — will not sell a face recognition product until the technology’s potential for abuse is addressed.

Face recognition, powered by artificial intelligence, could allow the government to supercharge surveillance by automating identification and tracking. Authorities could use it to track protesters, target vulnerable communities (such as immigrants), and create digital policing in communities of color that are already subject to pervasive police monitoring.

So how are the world’s biggest technology companies responding to this serious threat to privacy, safety and civil rights? Google, at least, appears to be taking the risks seriously with its recent announcement. Microsoft, unfortunately, is just talking the talk. And Amazon is completely running amok.

All three companies need to take responsibility for uses of their technology. Now, a nationwide coalition of civil rights organizations has demanded that they not sell face surveillance to the government.

Last spring, the ACLU exposed how Amazon is aggressively trying to sell its face surveillance product —Rekognition — to government agencies. The company’s marketing materials read like a user manual for the type of authoritarian surveillance you can currently see in China.

Amazon encourages governments to use its technology to track “persons of interest” and monitor public spaces, comparing everyone to databases with tens of millions of faces. Amazon even suggested pairing face recognition with police body cameras, a move that would transform devices meant for police accountability into roving mass-surveillance devices.

The dangers couldn’t be clearer. In an eye-opening test, Amazon’s Rekognition falsely matched 28 members of Congress against a mugshot database. Tellingly, congressional members of color were disproportionately misidentified, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. And that test wasn’t based on a hypothetical: Law enforcement has already been using Rekognition to match pictures against arrest-photo databases.

Following these revelations, federal lawmakers spoke up about the risks of face surveillance, and civil rights groups, company shareholders, and hundreds of Amazon employees have called on Amazon to stop selling the technology to governments. But, instead of heeding these concerns and taking their product off the table for governments, the company is trying to sell Rekognition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI.

Amazon’s statements and actions provide a stark contrast with Google’s approach. While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acknowledged his company’s products might be put to “bad uses,” he said the solution was to wait for society’s eventual “immune response” to take care of the problems. This is a shocking abdication of responsibility, not to mention convenient blindness to the “response” that Rekognition has already engendered.

Google, on the other hand, has charted a distinctly different course with technologies based on artificial intelligence, with CEO Sundar Pichai urging his industry to realize that “it just can’t build it and then fix it.”

So where is Microsoft in all this? The company has explicitly recognized the dangers of face surveillance in its statements, but its proposed solutions don’t add up.

In a blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith correctly identifies the threats the technology poses to privacy, free speech, and other human rights, observing that today’s technology makes a surveillance state possible.

But then, after outlining those grave threats to democracy, Smith proposes relying on inadequate safeguards that have failed in the past with technologies far less dangerous than face surveillance. He expresses excessive faith in notifying people of face surveillance systems — but what good is that in a world where face recognition is so widespread that nobody can opt out?

History has taught us that given the opportunity, governments will exploit new surveillance technologies, especially to target communities of color, religious minorities and immigrants. With face surveillance, we are at a crossroads. The choices made now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest or going to their place of worship — or simply living their lives.

That’s why so many people have been sounding the alarm. Microsoft has heard it, but seems to be in denial. Amazon needs to get its fingers out of its ears and start really listening. Google has heard it and is on the right track — the rest of the industry should follow its lead.

Nicole Ozer is director of Technology & Civil Liberties, ACLU of California.

This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

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Bay Area

Board Bars Evictions Related to COVID-19

Several times during the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Board has passed resolutions barring evictions for nonpayment of rent arising directly from the coronavirus. Preventing evictions for nonpayment due to financial hardship related to COVID-19 allows the County and its partners to continue making funds available for tenants who have struggled to pay rent. Since spring 2020, nearly 1,260 local households have received County-sponsored COVID-19 rental assistance.

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The County budget is balanced and structurally sound, although national economic indicators are showing signs that the recovery is slowing down.
The County budget is balanced and structurally sound, although national economic indicators are showing signs that the recovery is slowing down.

Protections intended for those experiencing hardship because of pandemic

Courtesy of Marin County

Determined to prevent housing displacement for residents financially hampered by the ongoing pandemic, the Marin County Board of Supervisors took another action June 21 to prohibit residential renter evictions in unincorporated Marin effective July 1 through Sept. 30, 2022. The State of California’s eviction protections are scheduled to expire June 30.

Several times during the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Board has passed resolutions barring evictions for nonpayment of rent arising directly from the coronavirus. Preventing evictions for nonpayment due to financial hardship related to COVID-19 allows the County and its partners to continue making funds available for tenants who have struggled to pay rent. Since spring 2020, nearly 1,260 local households have received County-sponsored COVID-19 rental assistance.

The County is continuing to assist tenants who have applied for rental assistance and working with community partners to assure an equitable distribution of federal funds earmarked for eviction prevention. All renters have been protected by state or local laws, regardless of a person’s citizenship status, during the public health emergency. The County continues to process rental assistance applications as quickly as possible with added staff over the past year to accommodate assistance applications.

Rental assistance priority has been given to households that are considered extremely low income, which in Marin would be a family of three with an income of no more than $43,550. Nationally, communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and are often at the highest risk of housing displacement. The County recognizes that those most in need of eviction protection experience barriers to access such a program. While more than two-thirds of non-Hispanic white residents are homeowners in Marin, roughly three-quarters of both Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx communities in Marin are renters.

Between state and federal funds, the County’s pandemic rental assistance program was awarded $36,414,871 of which $23,970,885 has been distributed to 1,260 local households in need. There is a remaining balance of $8,579,705, which will serve the remaining applicants and waiting list and is anticipated to be spent by September 30, 2022.

Clearing accumulated debt is designed to provide a lifeline to the hardest-hit families and provide income stability for landlords. Several local agencies, such as Canal Alliance, Community Action Marin, and North Marin Community Services, are assisting applicants with the process.

Property owners may call the District Attorney’s Consumer Protection Unit at (415) 473-6450 for assistance on rights and responsibilities. Renters are encouraged to contact Legal Aid of Marin at (415) 492-0230, extension 102, for inquiries on eviction protections.

Anyone needing help with the online application may call (415) 473-2223 or email staff to learn more about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. More information about the County’s eviction moratorium is on the County’s COVID-19 Renter Protections webpage.

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Bay Area

Marin Prepares to Vaccinate Young Children

Parents and guardians should contact their pediatrician to discuss appropriate timing to have their child vaccinated for COVID-19, especially if due for another routine pediatric vaccination. Children in their first 5 years are regularly visiting their pediatrician and vaccines are a routine part of these visits. The COVID-19 vaccine can be given in the same visit as the other important vaccines needed. MCPH will support pediatricians to ensure access to the vaccine over the coming weeks.

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Parents and guardians in Marin County will be able to make COVID-19 vaccine appointments for kids 6 months to 4 years starting this week. (Copyright-free photo from Unsplash).
Parents and guardians in Marin County will be able to make COVID-19 vaccine appointments for kids 6 months to 4 years starting this week. (Copyright-free photo from Unsplash).

New COVID-19 vaccine reduces risk in childcare and youth settings

Courtesy of Marin County

Now that federal and state regulators have approved the use of COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 6 months through 4 years old, local pediatricians, health centers and Marin County Public Health (MCPH) are preparing to vaccinate the nearly 8,000 children in that age group who call Marin County home. Appointments are opening this week.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s Public Health Officer. “Until now, 8,000 of our residents – everyone under 5 years – has been excluded from the protection of vaccines because they were too young. Vaccinations will make every setting where kids gather safer, for kids and adults. We’ll all be able to worry a lot less about childcare centers, playdates, parties, and summer camps.”

Community transmission rates in Marin and across the Bay Area remain high. Since the beginning of June, Marin children up to 4 years old have the highest rates of COVID-19 of any age group. Nationally, over 500 children aged 5 or younger have died from COVID-19, making the virus among the top 10 causes of death in children.

The two authorized vaccines are Moderna and Pfizer, offered in lower doses than for adults and older children. Moderna will be for children aged 6 months to 5 years, as two shots spaced one month apart. The Pfizer vaccine will be for children 6 months through 4 years, as three shots over 11 weeks, two within three weeks and a third eight weeks later. The three-dose Pfizer regimen was found to be 80% effective at preventing infection, roughly twice as effective as the Moderna vaccine.

One of the settings that will benefit most from pediatric COVID-19 vaccination is childcare. In Marin, over 80% of school-aged children 5-18 are fully vaccinated, after a dedicated countywide campaign to make schools safer through vaccinations.

“Our childcare providers have been heroes, taking care of our kids since the very beginning of the pandemic while knowing none of the children were vaccinated,” said Michelle Fadelli, Manager of Public Policy and Communications at First 5 Marin. “Now very young children will be safer in childcare, and their providers will be, too.”

ACCESSING THE VACCINE

Parents and guardians should contact their pediatrician to discuss appropriate timing to have their child vaccinated for COVID-19, especially if due for another routine pediatric vaccination. Children in their first 5 years are regularly visiting their pediatrician and vaccines are a routine part of these visits. The COVID-19 vaccine can be given in the same visit as the other important vaccines needed. MCPH will support pediatricians to ensure access to the vaccine over the coming weeks.

Kaiser Permanente, which is the primary medical provider for more than half of Marin households, will welcome children 6 months to 5 years old for COVID-19 vaccination starting Friday, June 24. Parents and guardians can book a vaccination appointment via Kaiser’s call center at (415) 444-4460. Walk-ins or drop-ins are not immediately available.

In addition, parents and guardians will be able to find appointments in a variety of settings – including pharmacies, pediatricians, and public health clinics – online via MyTurn.ca.gov. Select MCPH clinics will offer vaccines to infants and young children without a primary care physician beginning Thursday, June 23. Appointments can be made online via MyTurn and the ongoing schedule will be published at GetVaccinatedMarin.org.

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Bay Area

Cautious Parents Weigh Decision to Give Children Under 5 COVID Vaccine

“There is definitely still a need for vaccinations for the whole population,” said Dr. Lucia Abascal, a physician and researcher at CDPH. “There is this idea that Omicron is milder, but if we look at children’s data in this age group, we can actually see that hospitalizations peaked as well as deaths. We have more and more evidence that kids are at an acute risk of COVID.”

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Visit Vaccinate All 58 to learn more about the safe and effective vaccines available for all children in California ages 6 months and older.
Visit Vaccinate All 58 to learn more about the safe and effective vaccines available for all children in California ages 6 months and older.

By Edward Henderson, California Black Media

Antonio and Tenaja Kizzie, a San Diego area couple, are parents of a 3-year-old daughter. Although both parents are vaccinated and boosted, the Kizzies have reservations about giving their toddler the COVID-19 vaccine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended last week for children younger than 5 years old.

“It’s one thing to feel like her body is still developing and growing. She’s been vaccinated for everything else for things that have been around for years. It’s a little scary thinking about something that’s new. We don’t want to jump in right now,” Tenaja told California Black Media. “We just want to wait a little bit and see the side effects for other kids in her age group and reassess from there.”

Her husband chimed in.

“We believe in the science, we believe vaccines work, but when it comes to the under-fives, just being a parent we’re a bit more hesitant to give her the vaccine so far. We’re waiting to see how it goes with other under 5 kids that get the vaccine. Even though science and logic say yes, as a new parent you’re extra cautious,” Antonio said.

The Kizzies are not alone.

Numbers the CDC released at the end of May indicate that hesitancy about vaccinating their children is high among parents across the country. Although the U.S. Food and Drug administration approved COVID vaccines for children between the ages of 5 and 11 last October, only about 30% of kids in that age range have received the shot.

“For those families that are hesitant and questioning, I try to understand what their fears and questions are. I try to remind them that we are in this together. I care about the health and wellbeing of their children, and I will always suggest the best possible course for them,” said Dr. Jennifer Miller, a pediatrician with East Bay Pediatrics, a medical practice with offices in Berkeley and Orinda.

Miller was speaking during a medical panel co-hosted by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Ethnic Media Services (EMS). The discussion was held to offer information about vaccinating children 6 months to 4 years old against COVID-19 to parents, caregivers and the media.

“I let them know that ultimately it is their decision to make, and I am here as a resource,” Miller added. “It is normal to be afraid of the unknown and to want to protect your child. With that in mind, vaccination is the best protection around.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this month. The agency’s approval came on the heels of news that COVID-19 is now the fifth leading cause of death in children 1-4 years old and the fourth leading cause of death for children younger than 1.

“These are sobering statistics for all of us,” said Sandy Close, EMS director and moderator of the news briefing. “Vaccination is an important tool to protect their long-term health against COVID-19 and helps achieve full family protection against this deadly virus.”

Panelists said it is a myth that COVID does not affect children. The CDC reports that 1 in 5 hospitalized children end up in the ICU. And during the Omicron surge, children were hospitalized five times more than in the Delta surge.

“There is definitely still a need for vaccinations for the whole population,” said Dr. Lucia Abascal, a physician and researcher at CDPH. “There is this idea that Omicron is milder, but if we look at children’s data in this age group, we can actually see that hospitalizations peaked as well as deaths. We have more and more evidence that kids are at an acute risk of COVID.”

Abascal detailed the steps of the vaccine approval process at the state and federal levels. An independent expert panel reviewed the data that Moderna and Pfizer provided and unanimously voted that the FDA approve the vaccine. The CDC was the final step of approval for the vaccine at the federal level.

Before California recommends any COVID vaccine, it is reviewed by The Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup, a commission comprising medical professionals and scientists convened by Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California.

Children 3 years old and above will be eligible to receive vaccines at pharmacies. However, children under 3 will need to get vaccinated at a pediatrician’s office or a community clinic.

California has purchased enough vaccinations for every child in the state. The first shipment of 500,000 doses will arrive next week. About 2.2 million children are eligible for vaccination in California.

The Moderna vaccine is a two-dose regimen like the adult shot, with a one-month wait between doses. The Pfizer vaccine requires three doses. The first dose is followed by the second 21 days later and the final dose comes 60 days after that.

Authorities familiar with the vaccine trials say the side effects of minor fever and pain at the injection site may be stronger for children who receive the Moderna shot.

Dr. Sarah Takekawa, an obstetrician-gynecologist, who is currently raising three children under age 5, was also a panelist.

Takekawa spoke to some of the concerns pregnant women may have. She said she was fully vaccinated before conceiving her third child. She received her booster while pregnant.

“I have seen firsthand what COVID-19 infection can do to otherwise extremely healthy young women during their pregnancies. Watching adults who are otherwise healthy succumb to the disease, it seems easy to us to make this decision about wanting to get vaccinated and encouraging other parents to have their children vaccinated.

Visit Vaccinate All 58 to learn more about the safe and effective vaccines available for all children in California ages 6 months and older.

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