Good Monday Morning

It’s May 22. We’re off next week for Memorial Day. See you on June 5.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,173 words–about 4 1/2 minutes to read.

image by MidJourney 5, prompted by George Bounacos

Spotlight On … Federal Surveillance Programs

A steady drumbeat of anti-privacy federal surveillance headlines emerged last week about programs at FBI, HUD, and the Post Office. The programs are similar to one we learned about in January regarding surprising federal surveillance initiatives.

For Everyday Money Transfers

In January, we learned that more than 600 law enforcement agencies can access a database that details money transfers between Americans and people in more than 20 countries. Those transfers include the full name and address of the sender and recipient for money orders and other electronic transfers well below the $10,000 threshold, often triggered by as little as $500.

Important quote: “Courts have held that customers using money transmitter businesses do not have the same expectation of privacy as traditional banking customers,” an Arizona Attorney General statement to the WSJ.

In Public Housing Communities

Public housing funds earmarked to combat crime are being used to monitor resident behavior and recommend evictions for minor violations. Transgressions such as taking a cart from a laundry room or violating overnight guest rules are monitored by cameras that include facial recognition and advanced software.

Important quote: “People choose to get evicted by their actions.” Melody McClurg, executive director of the Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority in Steubenville to the Washington Post

At the Post Office

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators last week accused the U.S. Postal Service of “unchecked government monitoring” of Americans’ mail. Post offices collect information upon written request by a law enforcement officer–no court order is necessary. All the information on the envelope’s outside is included. In their letter, the senators claim tens of thousands of Americans and businesses are monitored.

Important quote: “A mail cover is an investigative tool used to record data appearing on the outside of a mailpiece. Law enforcement agencies use this information to protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law. A mail cover is justified when it will further an investigation or provide evidence of a crime.” — USPS description

In Secret Databases

A recently unsealed court document shows that the FBI used a federal surveillance database to monitor individuals who protested for racial equality, illegally entered the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection, or donated to a congressional candidate. The database is under the control of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which threatened last year to restrict FBI access to the data.

Important finding: Court documents show “an FBI analyst conducted a batch query for over 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign” because the analyst said the campaign was a target of foreign influence, reports the Washington Post.

3 More Stories to Know

1) A First Amendment battle is shaping up in Montana where Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill to ban TikTok in the state. The bill takes effect in January and prohibits app stores from making the software available and the company from operating in the state.

2) 30-Second unskippable ads can now be purchased on YouTube. Calling the format “a staple of the TV industry,” YouTube said that the ads would be used only when content is shown on a television and not on phones or computers.

3) Angi company HomeAdvisor has agreed to pay $7.2 million to home services companies it defrauded by misrepresenting the consumer leads it sold them.

Did That Really Happen? — Biden Graduation Video Manipulated

A video of President Biden attending his granddaughter’s graduation has been digitally manipulated to include a crowd chanting “Fuck Joe Biden” in time to a marching band. The hoax video has been viewed more than one million times.

Following Up —  TSA Rolling Out New Program

Travelers at 16 airports will have the opportunity to take a selfie at a kiosk and then have their id scanned without having to rely on an officer to match their id and face. An agent is available, and travelers can opt out.

Protip —  Revisit WhatsApp Privacy

Wired updated their privacy walk-through of WhatsApp so if that’s one of your communications channels, have a look through this explainer.

Screening Room —  Augmental MouthPad

This unobtrusive mouthguard-like device is a game-changer for adapting tech devices for people who have disabilities.

Science Fiction World —  Your DNA, Pulled From Thin Air

Environmental researchers have long filtered human DNA from their work. Wildlife researchers and botanists use environmental DNA after scrubbing out human contamination. Now a bioethical issue is being raised: what should be the rules for how residual human DNA is used when it’s available to anyone with the right equipment?

Coffee Break — Same Place Names As Viewed Throughout The U.S.

This interactive database allows you to enter a place name and learn which town is being referred to throughout the U.S. 

For example: most of the country is referring to the Fairfax in Virginia, but people in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana likely mean Fairfax, Ohio, and people in SC and eastern Georgia probably mean Fairfax, SC.

It’s great fun to play with.

Sign of The Times

Good Monday Morning

It’s May 15. Open AI co-founder and CEO Sam Altman testifies before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee tomorrow, the first time the executive whose firm launched ChatGPT has appeared before Congress. Don’t expect legislators to show too much knowledge. The House only purchased 40 ChatGPT licenses and those were bought three weeks ago.

Today’s Spotlight is 918 words–about 3 1/2 minutes to read.

Image by MidJourney 5.1, prompted by George Bounacos

Spotlight On … Increasing Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware attacks are increasing in 2023, thanks in part to a vulnerability in widely used commercial software that was exploited against more than 100 companies in 30 days. That’s not the only reason; ransomware attacks also increased in January and February compared to last year.

The First Wave of Ransomware Attacks

The Toronto city government confirmed it had been attacked three days after reporters from TechCrunch contacted the administration. Other hacking victims include:

  • 1 million Community Health Systems patient records
  • 140,000 Social Security records from Hatch Bank
  • Hitachi Energy employee data
  • Internal data from cybersecurity company Rubrik

These aren’t the only recent ransomware attacks. In March, personal records about student mental health, suspension reports, and even notes about rape and child abuse of Minneapolis students were published online after the city refused to pay a $1 million ransom.

Hackers attacking Virginia’s Bluefield University took their case directly to the university community last week. After breaching the school’s computers, the hackers used the college’s alert system to warn students and faculty that their records would be published if the university didn’t pay.

Employees Are An Attack Vector

There will likely be more attacks as hackers target tech employees.

More than 27 million passwords purportedly belonging to Fortune 1000 company employees are available on the dark web. We also learned this week that a third-party support agent working for Discord was hacked.  That attack led the network to inform users that hackers may have downloaded their email addresses and attachments.

Meanwhile SchoolDude software acknowledged last Friday that hackers have stolen nearly three million user records of school administrators, principals, and campus maintenance workers who submit maintenance and repair requests.

2) The New York Times and Google reached a $100 million, three year deal that will feature Times content on Google as well as subscriptions and ad products. Other publishers with similar Google deals include The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.

3) Separately, Google announced last week during its I/O Event that it will bundle its generative AI software called Bard into Search and Google Docs. The company is also accelerating its Immersive Maps view and announced new tablets, a budget phone, and a luxury folding phone that will cost $1,800.

Practical AI

Photos published on social media by Amnesty International to highlight police crackdowns on protests in Colombia were AI generated fakes. Amnesty said that it used images that it labeled as AI-generated to protect protesters from retribution.

The UK government is adding £100 million in funding to establish a public-private AI task force to boost the country’s competitiveness and ensure “safe and reliable” use of the technology. This is the government’s second major financial commitment and follows a £900 million investment for computing hardware and AI research.

Tool of the Week: Google has made samples of its MusicLM program publicly available. The software creates new music from text prompts.

 Waiting in the Wings

  • How algorithms are automatically denying medical claims
  • Amazon’s data about you expands beyond shopping
  • Big Tech has a 2024 election issue it hasn’t quite solved 

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Did That Really Happen? — Crime Not Lowest on Mother’s Day

The meme’s timing was perfect. Unfortunately, no one has proven that it’s true. Snopes explains why.

Following Up —  TurboTax Refunds On The Way

We’ve been writing for years about how Intuit’s TurboTax steered consumers away from its participation in the IRS’ Free File program.  Some of those government-filed suits are now putting a little cash in the pockets of more than four million filers who the company misled. Those refunds are averaging about $30.

Protip —  Take a Screenshot of Streaming Video

The Verge has published a walkthrough showing you how to change your browser settings to take a screenshot of Netflix, Amazon Prime, or other video streaming services playing on your device.

Screening Room — Dove Real Virtual Beauty

Science Fiction World —  Lawnmower Makes Room for Bees, Butterflies

We’ve been learning a lot about how lawns can harm native bee and butterfly populations. Now the Roomba-like Husqvarna lawnmower will cut the grass while maintaining 10% of the area for those pollinators. You can see the lawnmower in action here.

Coffee Break — This Bear Knows What He Wants

You definitely want to see this Colorado Parks & Wildlife video showing a bear properly opening a truck door, dumping the stuff that he didn’t want, and loping off with a picnic basket a bag.

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

Thursday marks the end of the COVID-19 health emergency declaration in the U.S. This likely means that you will have to pay for testing and treatment if you become ill. More than 1,000 Americans still die from the disease each week, more than from gun violence and car accidents combined.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,134 words–about 4 minutes to read.

Facial recognition privacy concerns abound as people queue up at a stadium entrance
image by Midjourney 5.1 prompted by George Bounacos

Spotlight On … Facial Recognition Privacy

It’s increasingly common to have to comply with identity requirements to attend concerts, sports events, or access government records, putting data access at odds with individual facial recognition privacy and security.

Israeli soldiers use Red Wolf software and its red-yellow-green icons to indicate whether Palestinians can cross into the occupied West Bank or be investigated. Amnesty International calls that practice ‘automated apartheid’.

The human rights organization also criticized the Met Police for their plans to deter crime or help with intelligence operations by using live facial recognition. Critics call the technology Orwellian and criticize law enforcement authorities for boasting of only 1 false positive in 6,000. They also call the concept mass surveillance and assert that no one will have an expectation of facial recognition privacy.

Americans already face similar requirements at concerts and sporting events. During a field trip with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop last December, a woman working for a law firm suing Madison Square Garden was denied access to MSG-owned Radio City Music Hall.  State officials and the law firm threatened MSG’s owner, but he doubled down on the technology.

Nine U.S. ballparks this summer are testing similar programs powered by Clear. Clear has used that technology in U.S. airports for years and is branching into offering services to venue owners.

U.S. government agencies also require positive identification to access services. A driver’s license or other photo ID is normally reviewed by an official, but uses biometrics instead. Both this program and, proposed by the Internal Revenue Service last year, have detractors. IRS backpedaled after widespread criticism, allowing Americans to verify their identity by video call or photo ID at 650 branches.

As we reported in January, multiple police departments have jailed individuals based on false facial recognition results. Clearview, a company that made headlines by illicitly downloading 30 billion photos from Facebook and social media sites, claims to have run nearly 1 million reports for law enforcement agencies against a database of those images. Some cities, including Portland and San Francisco, ban police from using that company’s services.

3 More Stories to Know

1) Google announced passkey support has arrived for personal accounts and will migrate to Google Workspace commercial accounts. The secure login uses biometrics or a PIN instead of a password. We wrote about passkeys last November.

Separately, Google announced that it will start displaying a blue checkmark next to commercial email senders’ names when the organization has verified their domain.

2) IBM said that it will pause hiring for nearly 8,000 jobs that it thinks will be performed by automation and machine learning software in the coming years.

3) More shipping and returns information will begin appearing in Google search results. This requires additional merchant coding so look for the information to first begin appearing at big brands and the most savvy of small businesses.

Practical AI

A Reddit community of college professors has been gleefully following the financial results of “education company” Chegg Inc. The $700 million publicly traded company offers “homework help” and similar assistance that facilitates student cheating. Chegg lost 49% of its value the day after it acknowledged that revenues were harmed by the widespread rollout of ChatGPT.

Samsung is banning employees from using generative AI for work. The company said that some sensitive code has been uploaded by employees. It’s a great reminder for your organization–not just developers looking for code troubleshooting, but others using the systems to help write copy about sensitive topics. 

Tool of the Week: This Midjourney prompting tutorial is clearly written and offers solid advice. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your graphics to the next level.

Trends & Spends

Did That Really Happen? — VP Video Was Doctored

A video of Vice President Kamala Harris that started on TikTok made its way around social media online via tens of thousands of people sharing. PolitiFact reports that the video was doctored and shows her “talking nonsensically” and slurring her speech during an address at Howard University.

 Following Up —  Robocops & Driverless Cars

We told you last week about New York Mayor Eric Adams partnering again with Boston Dynamics and their four legged robots called Spot. Now a firm has outfitted the same robots with onboard ChatGPT access and a Google Text-to-Speech interface. 

Perhaps they can help their human counterparts in San Francisco who are shown in this remarkable bodycam footage trying to corral a driverless vehicle that blundered into a fire and crime scene.

Protip —  Make How-To Guides

If you need to show a colleague or a customer how to do something online, you can now make professional-looking manuals based on your own screen and actions. I’ve played with Scribe for a couple of weeks and think that its free version is fine for casual business use.

Screening Room —  Budweiser Builds Ground Coolers to Combat Climate Change

Science Fiction World —  Sweden Building Electrified Road

Letting the road charge your car as you drive is another mind-boggling way to help mitigate climate change. Sweden plans to build this electrified motorway within two years. The road will connect Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö.

Coffee Break — Tour the Space Station

The European Space Agency published a virtual tour of the International Space Station. Similar to Google Maps’ Street View, you can move though the various modules on the Space Station,

Sign of the Times