Tattoo Recognition Technology Triggers Privacy Concerns


According to a new report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the FBI has been working with the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to create software that would recognize tattoos that signify an affiliation to a religious group, gang, or political ideology. According to the EEF, the software would use an existing database of 15,000 tattoo images taken of inmates and arrestees to automatically identify and profile others with similar designs. The initiative is one that the EFF investigators claim "threatens free speech and privacy."

However, the NIST disputes several points in the EFF report. In an email statement to mental_floss, the agency said, “Neither NIST nor the FBI are creating any software,” adding that it was “being developed by industry and academia.” 

The EFF reports that existing algorithms are able to identify tattoos with "greater than 90 percent accuracy," but the programs are not yet able to match individuals with the designs. The foundation also says that NIST and the FBI have plans to improve the system by enhancing the database to 100,000 images with the help of law enforcement departments in Tennessee, Michigan, and Florida.

According to NIST, its project uses the database to “fairly and reproducibly assess which algorithms from companies and research groups produce the highest-quality matches. The goal of the NIST project is to help ensure tattoo matching technologies are evaluated using sound science to improve accuracy and minimize mismatches.” 

The EEF obtained information from a NIST workshop presentation in which the organization said that tattoos "contain intelligence; messages, meaning, and motivation." The language in the presentation also originally mentioned the connections that could be made between tattoos and "gangs, sub-cultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs, or political ideology." References to religion and political ideologies were removed from public documents after the EFF voiced its concerns.

NIST said in its response—which you can read in full here—that the recognition software is “not capable of attaching symbolism or meaning to the images, it matches images to other images based on pixel content.”

In obtaining inmate photos for research purposes, the EFF says that members of NIST did not check with their superiors on the ethics of the project until after it was completed, and adds that some of the photos contain personal information about the prisoners and thus should not be used.

NIST refutes this claim, telling mental_floss that “NIST’s work on this project does not involve the use of human subjects as defined by federal regulations. The database contains images only, with no accompanying information on the individuals whose tattoos were photographed."

The project, the statement says, "is about measuring the effectiveness of algorithms for accurately matching digital images. The NIST project is not about the many complex law enforcement policies or approaches that may be related to images of tattoos.” 

Nevertheless, the EFF is calling for the suspension of the FBI and NIST’s use of the tattoo recognition software until its concerns are addressed; NIST noted in its statement that it is "reviewing the EFF report and will carefully consider their concerns."

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect a statement from NIST.

[h/t Gizmodo]

France Hires Two Cats to Get Rid of Rats in Government Offices

The French government just hired two new employees, but instead of making policy decisions, the civil servants will be responsible for keeping offices rat-free. As The Telegraph reports, the cats are the first official mousers to France.

The secretary to the prime minister, Christophe Castaner, brought in the cats after he saw that the mouse problem at the offices near the Elysee Palace was getting out of hand. They're named Nomi and Noé after the early duke of Brittany Nominoé.

Paris is home to about 4 million rats—nearly two for every citizen—and the capital's offices are just as vulnerable to infestation as other old buildings. Until now, government employees had been setting out traps to solve the vermin problem. With Nomi and Noé now living on site, the hope is that the pets will double as pest control.

The new hires aren't unprecedented: The British government employs over 100,000 cats to chase down rodents. Official mouser may sound like a cushy job, but the UK holds its felines to a high standard. Larry, the official Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office to two prime ministers, was nearly fired in 2012 for failing to react to a mouse in plain sight.

[h/t The Telegraph]

6 Things Americans Should Know About Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is back in the news, as Ajit Pai—the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and a noted net neutrality opponent—has announced that he plans to propose sweeping deregulations during a meeting in December 2017. The measures—which will fundamentally change the way consumers and businesses use and pay for internet access—are expected to pass the small committee and possibly take effect early in 2018. Here's a brief explanation of what net neutrality is, and what the debate over it is all about.


Net neutrality is a principle in the same way that "freedom of speech" is. We have laws that enforce net neutrality (as we do for freedom of speech), but it's important to understand that it is a concept rather than a specific law.


Fundamentally, net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to prioritize one kind of data traffic over another. This also means they cannot block services purely for business reasons.

To give a simple example, let's say your ISP also sells cable TV service. That ISP might want to slow down your internet access to competing online TV services (or make you pay extra if you want smooth access to them). Net neutrality means that the ISP can't limit your access to online services. Specifically, it means the FCC, which regulates the ISPs, can write rules to prevent ISPs from preferring certain services—and the FCC did just that in 2015.

Proponents often talk about net neutrality as a "level playing field" for online services to compete. This leaves ISPs in a position where they are providing a commodity service—access to the internet under specific FCC regulations—and that is not always a lucrative business to be in.


In 2014 and 2015, there was a major discussion of net neutrality that led to new FCC rules enforcing net neutrality. These rules were opposed by companies including AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. The whole thing came about because Verizon sued the FCC over a previous set of rules and ended up, years later, being governed by even stricter regulations.

The opposing companies see net neutrality as unnecessary and burdensome regulation that will ultimately cost consumers in the end. Further, they have sometimes promoted the idea of creating "fast lanes" for certain kinds of content as a category of innovation that is blocked by net neutrality rules.


In support of those 2015 net neutrality rules were companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, Vimeo, and Yahoo. These companies often argue that net neutrality has always been the de facto policy that allowed them to establish their businesses—and thus in turn should allow new businesses to emerge online in the future.

On May 7, 2014, more than 100 companies sent an open letter to the FCC "to express our support for a free and open internet":

Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.


Ajit Pai, who was one of the recipients of that open letter above and is now Chairman of the FCC, quoted Emperor Palpatine from Return of the Jedi when the 2015 rules supporting net neutrality were first codified. (At the time he was an FCC Commissioner.) Pai said, "Young fool ... Only now, at the end, do you understand." His point was that once the rules went into effect, they could have the opposite consequence of what their proponents intended.

The Star Wars quote-off continued when a Fight for the Future representative chimed in. As The Guardian wrote in 2015 (emphasis added):

Referring to Pai's comments Evan Greer, campaigns director at Fight for the Future, said: "What they didn't know is that when they struck down the last rules we would come back more powerful than they could possibly imagine."


The Star Wars quotes above get at a key point of the net neutrality debate: Pai believes that net neutrality stifles innovation. He was quoted in 2015 in the wake of the new net neutrality rules as saying, "permission-less innovation is a thing of the past."

Pai's statement directly contradicts the stated position of net neutrality proponents, who see net neutrality as a driver of innovation. In their open letter mentioned above, they wrote, "The Commission’s long-standing commitment and actions undertaken to protect the open Internet are a central reason why the Internet remains an engine of entrepreneurship and economic growth."

In December 2016, Pai gave a speech promising to "fire up the weed whacker" to remove FCC regulations related to net neutrality. He stated that the FCC had engaged in "regulatory overreach" in its rules governing internet access.

For previous coverage of net neutrality, check out our articles What Is Net Neutrality? and What the FCC's Net Neutrality Decision Means.


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