Start Up No.1597: Toronto airport tested facial recognition, climate disruption worsens, Facebook’s misinformation puzzle, and more


How quickly can you classify numbers into prime and non-prime? An online game will challenge you. CC-licensed photo by Eva the Weaver on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. A tad easier on the ripping, please. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Ottawa tested facial recognition on millions of travellers at Toronto’s Pearson airport in 2016 – The Globe and Mail

Tom Cardoso and Colin Freeze:

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In an effort to identify potential deportees, the federal government quietly tested facial recognition technology on millions of unsuspecting travellers at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in 2016.

The six-month initiative, meant to pick out people the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) suspected might try to enter the country using fake identification, is detailed in a document obtained by The Globe and Mail through a freedom of information request. The project is the largest known government deployment of the technology in Canada to date.

As travellers walked through the international arrivals border control area at Pearson’s Terminal 3, 31 cameras captured images of their faces. Whenever the system returned a match against a 5,000-person list of previously deported people, a border officer would review the data and pass the traveller’s information along to an officer on the terminal floor, who would track the traveller down and pull them into a “secondary inspection.”

…Details about the project, dubbed “Faces on the Move,” are scarce. But presentation slides posted online by Face4 Systems Inc., an Ottawa-based contractor hired by the CBSA to provide the technology and run the pilot, say it resulted in 47 “real hits” – travellers whose faces were matched against the CBSA’s database.

It is unclear if any travellers were deported following facial recognition matches.

In a statement, the CBSA told The Globe and Mail that matches were “processed in accordance with [the agency’s] operating procedures,” and later followed up to say “no individual was removed” as a result of the pilot.

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Claims an 89% detection rate, though it’s not clear quite what that actually means.
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UK weather: heatwave health alert for England extended to Friday • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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Experts said the heatwaves in the summer of 2020 caused more than 2,500 premature deaths and that the climate crisis is making heatwaves more intense and more frequent.

PHE’s level 3 heat-health alert requires social and healthcare services to take specific action to protect high-risk groups, such as older people, children and babies. The Met Office issued its first ever extreme heat warning for the UK on Monday.

“Everybody can be affected by high temperatures and most people are aware of good health advice for coping with hot weather,” said Dr Owen Landeg at PHE. “However, it’s important to keep checking on those who are most vulnerable such as older people and those with heart or lung conditions.”

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DuckDuckGo launches new Email Protection service to remove trackers • The Verge

Dave Gershgorn:

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DuckDuckGo is launching a new email privacy service meant to stop ad companies from spying on your inbox.

The company’s new Email Protection feature gives users a free “@duck.com” email address, which will forward emails to your regular inbox after analyzing their contents for trackers and stripping any away. DuckDuckGo is also extending this feature with unique, disposable forwarding addresses, which can be generated easily in DuckDuckGo’s mobile browser or through desktop browser extensions.

The personal DuckDuckGo email is meant to be given out to friends and contacts you know, while the disposable addresses are better served when signing up for free trials, newsletters, or anywhere you suspect might sell your email address. If the email address is compromised, you can easily deactivate it.

These tools are similar to anti-tracking features implemented by Apple in iOS 14 and iOS 15, but DuckDuckGo’s approach integrates into iOS, Android, and all major web browsers. DuckDuckGo will also make it easier to spin up disposable email addresses on the fly, for newsletters or anywhere you might share your email.

Tackling email privacy has been a major goal for DuckDuckGo, as the company pushes for privacy-friendly methods for various online tasks. The company began with its eponymous DuckDuckGo search engine and has more recently introduced its own mobile browser and desktop browser extensions to remove trackers while surfing the web.

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Coming just a few months ahead of Apple doing the same in its next release of iOS. Android (or Gmail) already does something of the kind. But it’s been a few years since we could all pile in to claim a new email address at a domain, hasn’t it?
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Bezos says space flight reinforced commitment to fighting climate change • Axios

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Jeff Bezos said in an interview hours after flying to suborbital space on Tuesday that there are “no words” to adequately describe the experience, but that it reinforced his commitment to combatting climate change and keeping Earth “as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is.”

Bezos, the world’s richest man, said he plans to make Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund — a $10bn effort to fight climate change — his life focus moving forward.

He called the flight a small step toward building a “road to space” and developing reusable rockets to cut down on waste.

“We have to build a road to space so our kids can build a future,” Bezos, who successfully traveled to space on a Blue Origin flight alongside his brother and two other passengers, told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle.

“We live on this beautiful planet. You can’t imagine how thin the atmosphere is when you see it from space. We live in it, and it looks so big. It feels like this atmosphere is huge and we can disregard it and treat it poorly. When you get up there and you see it, you see how tiny it is and how fragile it is,” he continued.

“We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space. And keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is. That’s going to take decades to achieve, but you have to start. And big things start with small steps.”

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I’m fairly sure Greta Thunberg hasn’t been into space (or even its edge), yet she seems quite firm on this “climate protection” thing. Reusable rockets, ok, are helpful for launching satellites – though that brings a separate question, about space junk, which is already a problem.
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Tokyo 2020 organizing committee chief won’t rule out last-minute cancellation of Olympics • ESPN

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The chief of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee on Tuesday did not rule out a last-minute cancellation of the Olympics, as more athletes tested positive for COVID-19 and major sponsors ditched plans to attend Friday’s opening ceremony.

Asked at a news conference whether the global sporting showpiece might still be canceled, Toshiro Muto said he would keep an eye on infection numbers and liaise with other organizers if necessary.

“We can’t predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases. So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases,” Muto said.

“We have agreed that based on the coronavirus situation, we will convene five-party talks again. At this point, the coronavirus cases may rise or fall, so we will think about what we should do when the situation arises.”

COVID-19 cases are rising in Tokyo, and the Games, postponed last year because of the pandemic, will be held without spectators. Japan this month decided that participants would compete in empty venues to minimize health risks.

There have been 67 cases of COVID-19 infections in Japan among those accredited for the Games since July 1, when many athletes and officials started arriving, organizers said Tuesday.

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Keep tabs on it at this PDF (or follow the link on this page). Keep scrolling: the PDF added a whole new page on the 20th. Thousands of people crammed into a small space. It’s almost a test case for following Covid spread.
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White House dispute exposes Facebook blind spot on misinformation • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel:

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At the start of the pandemic, a group of data scientists at Facebook held a meeting with executives to ask for resources to help measure the prevalence of misinformation about Covid-19 on the social network.

The data scientists said figuring out how many Facebook users saw false or misleading information would be complex, perhaps taking a year a more, according to two people who participated in the meeting. But they added that by putting some new hires on the project and reassigning some existing employees to it, the company could better understand how incorrect facts about the virus spread on the platform.

The executives never approved the resources, and the team was never told why, according to the people, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

Now, more than a year later, Facebook has been caught in a firestorm about the very type of information that the data scientists were hoping to track.

…“The suggestion we haven’t put resources toward combating Covid misinformation and supporting the vaccine rollout is just not supported by the facts,” said Dani Lever, a Facebook spokeswoman. “With no standard definition for vaccine misinformation, and with both false and even true content (often shared by mainstream media outlets) potentially discouraging vaccine acceptance, we focus on the outcomes — measuring whether people who use Facebook are accepting of Covid-19 vaccines.”

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I think this points to a deeper problem at Facebook: it doesn’t know how to measure misinformation. How can your AI measure the misinformation content of a post that says “myocarditis is a complication of Covid vaccination in teenagers”? (It is, but very dependent on dose.) Much depends on context. I think that’s why Facebook’s narrative about this, and so much other misinformation rows, doesn’t talk about how much is there. It doesn’t know. Yet it has to hide that fact, because to admit it would be to open the floodgates for all sorts of unwelcome regulation.
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Chinese army warns dam battered by storms could collapse • The Straits Times

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The PLA’s Central Theatre Command said it had sent soldiers to carry out an emergency response including blasting and flood diversion.

“On July 20, a 20m breach occurred at the Yihetan dam… the riverbank was severely damaged and the dam may collapse at any time,” it said in the statement.

Floods are common during China’s rainy season, which causes annual chaos and washes away roads, crops and houses.

But the threat has worsened over the decades, due in part to widespread construction of dams and levees that have cut connections between the river and adjacent lakes and disrupted floodplains that had helped absorb the summer surge.

In the nearby city of Zhengzhou, at least one person died and two more were missing since heavy rain began battering the city, according to the state-run People’s Daily, which reported that houses have collapsed.

…According to the weather authorities, the rainfall was the highest recorded since record keeping began sixty years ago as the city saw an average year’s worth of rainfall in just three days.

Authorities closed Zhengzhou’s flooded subway system and cancelled hundreds of flights.

Unverified videos on social media showed passengers in a flooded underground train carriage in Zhengzhou clinging to handles as the water inside surged to shoulder height, with some standing on seats.

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The videos from inside the carriages are the stuff of nightmares.
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Let’s say we stop burning fossil fuels. What happens next? • Grist

Eve Andrews:

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We talk so much about the supreme challenge of reducing emissions — something that already requires transitioning our entire economy away from the burning of fossil fuels, adapting to existing climate threats, and doing all that in a way that at the very least doesn’t add to the burdens of already marginalized communities. It’s hard to imagine that there’s more still to do. Can it really be that, on top of all those tasks, we have to pull carbon out of the atmosphere too?

Well, yes.

It’s not like we can just flip a switch in order to return to preindustrial CO2 levels. Zachary Byrum, a research analyst in carbon removal at the World Resources Institute, likes to compare our atmosphere to a rapidly filling bathtub. “Even if we turn the tap off, we still have a bathtub of CO2 that is full up to the top,” he said. “It might evaporate, but that would take a very long time. You have to make a drain so that the water, or CO2 in this metaphor, can go somewhere, and carbon removal is the means to do that.”

There are many types of carbon removal, but they all involve taking existing carbon out of atmospheric circulation, say, by planting new trees, improving soil quality, or using technology to suck it directly out of the air and inject it into the ground. “There is no world in which we don’t need carbon removal” to avert climate disaster, Byrum said.
That urgency is because our atmospheric bathtub is already really close to “overflowing.” According to the latest reading from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, our current level of atmospheric carbon is around 419 parts per million, or ppm, and continues to rise. Way back before the Industrial Revolution — when we figured out that we could haul fossil fuels out of the ground, burn them, and use the resulting energy to power machinery on a massive scale — that CO2 figure was more like 280 ppm.

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Which is why I’m really not impressed by Bezos, Musk, Branson et al pouring money into rockets instead of useful technology. Bill Gates, by contrast, first poured money into childhood vaccination, and now is focusing on, guess what, stopping global heating.
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Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd paid for ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ • Rolling Stone

Kory Grow:

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Eric Idle has revealed how much money rock bands and record labels contributed to financing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which came out in 1975. According to a tweet, Led Zeppelin contributed £31,500, Pink Floyd Music ponied up £21,000, and Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson put in £6,300 of his own money. Adjusting for inflation, that means that Led Zeppelin’s 1974 investment was equal to almost £336,000 in today’s money, Pink Floyd’s was about £224,000, and Anderson’s was worth approximately £67,000.

Other financiers on the film include film producer Michael White (who gave £78,750), Island Records (£21,000), Charisma Records (£5,250), lyricist Tim Rice’s cricket team Heartaches (£5,250), and Chrysalis Records (£6,300). The total budget was £175,350.

In further tweets, Idle said that none of the financiers visited the set since they were shooting in Scotland and joked that even with that much money, “We couldn’t afford horses.”

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Of course, the lack of horses wasn’t a problem because they could do the fabulous and iconic use of coconuts instead, which led to the running joke about African and European swallows. Everything’s connected.

Oh, and the film seems to have taken $175m in total sales over the years. Not a bad return.
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Is This Prime?

Christian Lawson-Perfect:

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The Is this prime? game.

For each number you’re shown, click Yes if it’s a prime number, or No otherwise.

Try to correctly sort as many numbers as possible in a minute.

Extras:

If clicking on the buttons is too slow, you can press y or n on the keyboard instead.

If you’d rather let the computer decide what’s prime and what’s not, go to the main Is this prime? website.

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But of course the person who coded a prime number game would have the surname of Perfect. (On Hacker News they suggest first memorising the prime numbers below 100 – there’s only 25 of them – and then winging it for the rest.)
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Australia’s giant carbon capture project fails to meet key targets • Sydney Morning Herald

Nick O’Malley:

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The world’s largest carbon capture and storage project has failed to meet a crucial target of capturing and burying an average of 80% of the carbon dioxide produced from gas wells in Western Australia over five years.

The energy giant Chevron agreed to the target with the West Australian government when developing its A$54bn Gorgon project to extract and export gas from fields off the WA coast.

The five year milestone passed on Sunday. In a statement the energy giant Chevron announced that since operations began in August 2019 it had injected five million tonnes of greenhouse gases underground.

According to the independent analyst Peter Milne, that leaves a shortfall of around 4.6 million tonnes, which he estimates would cost about A$100m to offset via carbon credits.

The project has national and even international significance, with the oil and gas industry and the federal government declaring the success of carbon capture and storage to be crucial in tackling climate change while making use of fossil fuels.

…But critics have noted that even if the Gorgon project worked it would only capture 80% of greenhouse gases coming from reservoirs, rather than the gases burnt to create energy to liquefy the gas for export.

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It’s often overlooked that to slow or, better, reverse global heating we need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If we can’t even capture more than half of what’s produced in extracting more fossil fuels (which will then be burnt), then we’re wishing for miracles.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Order Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Andrew Brown got in touch about the elusive broadband minister: “Matt Warman did do one interview (about 5G) with a trade magazine before the pandemic. I know because I conducted it. It was a strangely disorienting experience to talk to a minister who actually knew their subject and was interested in it.”

1 thought on “Start Up No.1597: Toronto airport tested facial recognition, climate disruption worsens, Facebook’s misinformation puzzle, and more

  1. I’m fond of the expression “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter”.
    I think there’s a similar issue here: “One person’s “misinformation” is another’s … [contrarianism? skepticism? debate? just-asking-questions?]”

    Attempting to measure “misinformation” is a sucker’s game, and Facebook knows it. Anything they do will immediately provide multiple attack surfaces, as in “Facebook did not consider these (horrible things) to count” and “Facebook itself admits it has all these (horrible things) running rampant, and isn’t banning them”.

    I’m bad at politics, so I can only talk from the perspective of my own cynicism, but of course no executive is going to outright say “Why feed the media jackals?”.

    But note, one of the great ironies is that Donald Trump has I believe now effectively immunized (pun unintended) Facebook from any severe case of content regulation. The more there’s any govermental saber-rattling about that, the more PR his lawsuit gets for the argument that there’s a State action issue to be explored with social media.

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