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Secret Service to Pilot Facial Recognition at White House

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The Department of Homeland Security last week published details of a Secret Service plan to test facial recognition at the White House.

The program will test U.S. Secret Service (USSS) employees’ ability to verify the identities of ringers in public spaces around the complex.

“Ultimately, the goal of the FRP [Facial Recognition Pilot] is to identify if facial recognition technologies can be of assistance to the USSS in identifying known subjects of interest prior to initial contact with law enforcement at the White House,” according to the DHS document.

Currently, Secret Service members assigned to high-ranking government officials, their families, and visiting heads of state rely on photos to identify subjects of interest.

“The USSS believes that deploying facial recognition technology will allow … law enforcement personnel to conduct a facial comparison prior to interaction or engagement,” Homeland Security said.

The pilot program will be carried out in two separate areas of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: an open setting, “where individuals are free to approach from any angle,” and an indoor space that “provides a controlled flow of individuals.”

Each will use video streams from existing Crown Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) camera systems, and can capture facial images from as far as 20 yards.

The pilot is scheduled to end on Aug. 30, 2019, at which point all collected facial image data will be deleted from the system.

Still, thousands of people going about their daily business near the White House are having their faces scanned, and possibly falsely matched to target subjects (in this case, volunteer USSS officers).

A spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service told Geek in an email that “For operational security purposes we do not comment on the means and methods of how we conduct our protective operations.”

It also didn’t actively share details of the upcoming program.

Rather, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) this week highlighted the document—which reveals that “members of the public may be unaware that their facial images are being captured and used by a facial recognition technology,” but that people “cannot opt-out” of the testing.

Folks can expect public notice of the deployment, though there is no word on when the pilot will begin.

“While this pilot program seems to be a relatively narrowly defined test that does not in itself pose a significant threat to privacy, it crosses an important line by opening the door to the mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, wrote in a blog post.

“Face recognition is one of the most dangerous biometrics from a privacy standpoint because it can so easily be expanded and abused,” he continued, “including by being deployed on a mass scale without people’s knowledge or permission.”

The DHS pilot document is deliberately obscure; puzzle pieces will remain missing as a safety precaution. But unanswered questions do more to stoke the fire than put out the flames.

“The program is another blinking red light for policymakers in the face of powerful surveillance technologies that will present enormous temptations for abuse and overuse,” Stanley said, urging Congress to “demand answers” and intercede, if necessary.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 9:30 a.m. ET with comment from the U.S. Secret Service.

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Taylor Swift (Possibly) Used Facial Recognition to Catch Stalkers at Concert

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Look what you made Taylor Swift do: The singer-songwriter reportedly employed facial recognition software to scan for stalkers at her Rose Bowl concert in May.

As reported by Rolling Stone, the fan-favorite kiosk showing clips of Swift in rehearsal was actually a front for high-tech security.

Inside, a hidden camera snapped photos of people as they peered in to watch run-throughs of the May 18 stadium event.

Images, sent to a “command post” in Nashville, were then cross-referenced with a database of hundreds of the pop star’s known stalkers, according to Mike Downing, chief security officer at Oak View Group, an advisory board for concert venues.

“Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working,” Downing, who personally attended the concert, told Rolling Stone.

Neither Oak View Group nor Swift’s reps immediately responded to a request for comment.

It is unclear who owns the kiosk in question, and whether the collected footage was kept on file. Or, for that matter, whether any real stalkers were identified by surveillance officers some 2,000 miles away.

Before you call a lawyer or draft a petition, keep in mind that concert venues are typically private locations. Which, according to Quartz, means that owners can subject attendees to “any kind of surveillance they want”—including facial recognition.

Despite its privacy concerns, the technology is on the rise, cropping up in China, where police are experimenting with AR glasses and authorities are cracking down on jaywalkers, and the US.

Early this year, Customs and Border Protection began rolling out cameras at the Mexico-Texas border, and the Secret Service are planning to test similar tech at the White House.

These sorts of trials have, understandably, conjured an Orwellian “Big Brother” impression across the country, where folks are concerned that ever-evolving facial recognition technology may not always be accurate.

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Virgin Galactic Is Ready to Go to Space

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Virgin Galactic hopes to reach space for the first time today (weather permitting).

Richard Branson’s spaceflight company this week revealed the window for its next powered test flight of VSS Unity opens on Dec. 13.

“We are currently planning to fly at the opening of that window on Thursday, pending acceptable weather and technical readiness,” a blog post said.

No further announcements have been made.

During this fourth phase of testing, the firm hopes to push VSS Unity higher and faster than ever before, burning the rocket motor for longer (though not to its full duration).

“Although this could happen as soon as Thursday morning, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone,” the company admitted.

As of October, Virgin Galactic was “more than tantalizingly close” to leaving Earth’s atmosphere, according to Richard Branson.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months,” the Virgin Group founder and CEO told CNBC.

“And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” he continued. “And then we’ll be in space with people not too long after that.”

Since its founding in 2004, the spaceflight company has been on a rollercoaster to the cosmos: The White Knight Two carrier plane and suborbital SpaceShipTwo flew together in 2010.

But a series of delays has grounded the firm, which suffered a disaster four years ago, when the VSS Enterprise broke apart in midair, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

Replacement ship VSS Unity completed its first successful glide test in December 2016, and another six by January of this year. It performed powered test flights in April and May.

“Incremental flight test programs are by definition open-ended and, to a great extent, each test depends on the data from the test that precedes it,” the blog said. “There is no guarantee that everything will work perfectly first time and, like all programs seeking to take bold steps, we will inevitably have times when things don’t go as planned.

“Our team’s biggest priority is to use meticulous planning and preparation to ensure that stages are dealt with safety, and that every outcome informs and improves future performance,” Virgin Galactic continued.

Keep an eye on the skies, as Branson & Co. gear up to finally take their first trip to space.

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Robot Successfully Delivers Coral Babies to Great Barrier Reef

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Call the drone midwife: A robot successfully delivered coral larvae directly onto the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

In a world first, an undersea android dispersed microscopic baby corals as part of a project to to help repopulate parts of the 1,429-mile ecosystem.

The initiative builds on Southern Cross University professor Peter Harrison’s larval reseeding technique, piloted on the southern Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.

“This year represents a big step up for our larval restoration research,” Harrison said in a statement.

“[It is] the first time we’ve been able to capture coral spawn on a bigger scale using large floating spawn catchers, then rearing them into tiny coral larvae in our specially constructed larval pools and settling them on damaged reef areas,” he explained.

Birthing partner Matthew Dunbabin, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, re-engineered QUT’s reef protector RangerBot into LarvalBot—specifically for Harrison’s project.

With a capacity to carry around 100,000 coral larvae per mission (and plans to scale up to millions), the robot gently releases the tots onto damaged reef areas, allowing them to settle and, eventually, develop into coral polyps.

“During this year’s trial, the robot was tethered so it could be monitored precisely,” Dunbabin said. “But future missions will see it operate alone and on a much larger scale.”

It’s like spreading fertilizer on your lawn,” he added.

Following this year’s initial trial, the pair plan to fully implement their proposal in 2019, using their specialized robot elsewhere in Australia, and around the world.

“With further research and refinement, this technique has enormous potential to operate across large areas of reef and multiple sites in a way that hasn’t previously been possible,” Harrison said. “We’ll be closely monitoring the progress of settled baby corals over coming months and working to refine both the technology and the technique to scale up further in 2019.”

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