Facial Recognition Faceoff

Facebook has been resisting outside efforts to rein in its “faceprints” facial recognition initiative – and mostly losing.

I’ve blogged before about the concerns many people have about facial recognition technology, and the troubling implications of the technology being misused in the wrong hands.

Facebook would claim to be the “right hands” rather than wrong ones when it comes to the database of “faceprints” it’s been compiling over the past decade or so. But its initiative has run afoul of an Illinois biometric privacy law passed in 2008.

The Illinois measure, which prohibits companies from collecting or storing people’s biometric data without their consent, is one of the strongest pieces of legislation of its kind in that it also allows individual consumers to sue for damages – to the tune of up to $5,000 per violation.

And that’s precisely what’s happened.  A class-action suite was filed in 2015 by a group of Illinois residents, alleging that Facebook has violated the Illinois privacy law through its photo-tagging function which draws on a trove of “faceprint” photos to recognize faces and suggest their names when they appear in photos uploaded by friends on Facebook.

Facebook has vigorously resisted efforts to rein in its faceprint initiative, arguing that any such lawsuits should be dismissed because users haven’t actually been injured by any alleged violations of the state law.

That stance has been rejected – first in U.S. district court and then in the court of appeals. Undaunted, Facebook appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which turned down the appeal in late January.

Rebuffed at all legal levels, Facebook has now decided to settle the suit for a reported $550 million, including payments of ~$200 each to claimants in the Illinois class-action suit.

Facebook has lost, but the whole notion of facial recognition technology could well be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. As it turns out, another firm has developed similar functionality and is busily selling facial recognition data to police departments across North America.  According to a recent investigative article publishing in The New York Times, a company called Clearview AI has mined billions of photos from Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms.  (Clearview is now being sued in Illinois for allegedly violating the same biometric privacy law that was at the center of the Facebook suit.)

And indeed, the efforts to rein in facial recognition activities may be a little too little, a little too late: According to a recent report from Business Insider, the faces of more than half of all adults in America have already been logged into police or government databases.

… Which brings us to a parallel response that appears to be gaining traction: figuring out ways to fool facial recognition software.  A number of entrepreneurs are developing intriguing methods to beat facial recognition software.  Among them are:

  • Clothing designers have begun to target weaknesses in the ability of facial recognition software to process overlapping or unusual shapes, as well as deciphering multiple similar images appearing in close proximity. One such example is a pair of goggles fitted with near-infrared LEDs that interfere with the ability to scan facial features.
  • Headscarves decorated with different faces “confuse” the software by overloading it with excessive amounts of data in the form of numerous facial features.
  • So-called “adversarial patches” – a graphic print that can be added to clothing – exploit the vulnerabilities in facial recognition scanning by making a person “virtually invisible for automatic surveillance cameras,” according to creators Simen Thys, Wiebe Van Ranst and Toon Goedemé.

Will the two-front attack on facial recognition technology from the legal as well as technology standpoint succeed in putting the facial recognition genie back in the bottle? It’s debatable.  But it’s certainly making things more of a challenge for the Facebooks and Clearviews of the world.

Closed-loop manufacturing: Practicality or pipedream?

Some of today’s more “socially aware” companies like to talk about becoming a closed-loop manufacturer. The topic seems particularly prevalent in the electronics industry, where generally higher profit margins may make it easier to actually accomplish such a challenging goal.

The most recent example of this is Apple. One of its key strategic objectives is to bypass the mining industry as much as possible by “mining” instead the innards of its customers’ discarded electronic devices.

Apple does quite a bit of this activity already, as it turns out. In 2018, the company reported that it refurbished nearly 8 million of its devices — thereby helping to divert nearly 50,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills.

But now it’s doing even more. Apple has developed a robot that is engineered to disassemble electronics. The robot, dubbed “Daisy,” is able to disassemble 1.2 million devices per year, retrieving 14 types of minerals for reuse. There are now multiple locations in the United States which can receive discarded Apple iPhones for disassembly and closed-loop manufacturing.

Of course, Apple’s lofty objective isn’t without its critics. Some note that Apple eschews the idea of manufacturing devices that can be repaired, rather than merely recycled. Others rebut the idea, noting that advancements in electronics make it unrealistic that the life of any single Apple device would ever extend longer than single-digit years.

Still others doubt that Apple will ever succeed in becoming a true closed-loop manufacturer. Kyle Wiens, who heads up iFixit, a firm that advocates for electronics repair versus replacement, is one such detractor. Says Wiens, “There’s this ego that believes they can get all their minerals back — and it’s not possible.”

What are your thoughts about the potential of closed-loop manufacturing and the Apple experience? Feel free to share your observations with other readers here.

A Marketer’s Resolution for the New Year

Note: Those of you who are regular readers of my marketing and culture blog have noticed that it “went dark” for a period of time over the past month or so.  The twin developments of health issues plus a death in the family (my mother, at the age of 96-and-a-half years), meant that I needed to be focused on recuperation and also estate matters.  But I’m back … and hopefully back to my regular schedule of posting.

For my final blog post of 2019, it comes in the form of a resolution for us marketers. It’s to finally acknowledge how little “upside potential” there actually is for social media to build or maintain a brand presence … and instead to place renewed focus on tactics that’ll actually deliver a more measurable ROI.

Most of my business clients have put a degree of effort into social media over the years – some with more focus and fortitude than others. But whether the campaigns have been “full speed ahead” or only half-hearted, invariably the end-result seems to be the same:  a sales needle that hardly moves, if at all.

Moreover, social media takes a deceptively significant amount of effort for that little bit of payoff. Companies that put in the effort devote human capital and in some cases substantive dollar resources to tap outside support, but frequently the results aren’t any more impactful than for our clients who merrily go on ignoring social medial platforms, year after year.  At least when looking at bottom-line sales.

Plus, in our highly sensitized world, these days it seems that when social media actually has an impact, more often than not it’s a negative one.  Too often it’s the sorry end-result of some sort of faux pas where even the best-laid plans for departmental or legal review aren’t carried out fully and the brand gets into trouble. (Sometimes that happens even with all of the checks and balances in place and being carried out religiously.)

So for 2020, we marketers could well be better off acknowledging how thin the promise of social media actually is.  We should ignore the siren calls of “likes” and “engagement” and stop chasing the phantom pot of gold at the end of the phantom rainbow. Chances are, your company’s bottom line will look just as strong, even as you focus more of your time and budget on marketing activities that’ll actually make a positive difference.

What are your thoughts on social media for brands? Please share them with other readers here.

Like synthetic fabrics, synthetic media has its good and bad attributes.

Decades ago, people had a choice of cloth fibers like cotton, wool and silk. Each of these natural cloths had positive attributes … as well as negative ones, too.

Cotton is comfortable to wear, but wrinkles when washed. Wool is great for the cold weather months, but needs to be dry-cleaned.  Too, moths and other insects love to burrow their way through woolen clothing, making many an item made from wool ready for the trash far too soon.

Silk? It has all the detriments of cotton and wool without any of the positives — except that it looks rich and expensive if one wishes to put on airs or otherwise “make a statement.”

Beginning in the 1940s, polyesters and other synthetic fibers were introduced, giving rise to all sorts of new clothing items that touted a variety of positive attributes: They washed up fine, didn’t need ironing, and kept their shape over time.

Never mind the fact that the clothing didn’t breathe, and made more than a few people stink to the heavens after wearing a synthetic cloth shirt for barely an hour on a hot summer day.

Along these same lines, today we have synthetic media. It’s essentially how people and machines are collaborating to create media that is algorithmically created (or modified).

In its earliest incarnations, synthetic media was a blend of “real” and “faux” components. Think of a newscast with your favorite, very real anchor person … but the background, screens and graphics are computer-generated.

But things have gone much further than that in recent times. Text, photography and videos are being created by software with such precision and seeming authenticity that it’s nearly impossible to determine what content is “real” versus what has been “synthesized.”

On the plus side, content can be automatically translated and delivered in multiple languages to different audiences spanning the world, bringing more news and information to more people simultaneously. But what if the avatar (host) could be customized to be more “familiar” to different audiences — and therefore more engaging and believable to them?

There’s a flipside to all of this innovation. So-called “deepfakes” (a recent term that took no time at all to be added to the major dictionary databases) harness digital technology to superimpose faces onto video clips in ways that are so realistic, they appear to be totally authentic.

Considering the advances in the technology, one can only imagine the plethora of “news” items that will be unleashed into cyberspace and on social media platforms in the coming months and years. Most likely, they’ll have the effect of making more than a few people suspicious of all news and information — regardless of the source.

Which brings us back to synthetic fabrics. They’re with us and always will be; there’s no turning back from them.  But people have learned how to use them for what makes sense, and eschew the rest.  We need to figure out how to do the same with synthetic media.

The “woke” workplace? Employees vote thumbs-down.

Most of us have probably heard the old adage that one should never talk about politics or religion at a party (unless its an election party or at the social hour following religious services, I suppose).

But what about at work?

In the “old days” – like when I started in business some 40 years ago – a similar unspoken rule applied; at the office, it just wasn’t “seemly” for people to wear their partisan or “cause” labels on their sleeves.

But that was before the bitterly disputed presidential campaign of 2000. Ever since those fateful 35 days following that election, it’s been downhill in the decorum department pretty much nonstop.

And after the election campaign of 2016, it’s gotten even worse.

Now we read stories about employees revolting against their own employers for seemingly “cavorting with the devil” (Wayfair selling furnishings to border detention facilities), employees losing their jobs – or at the least feeing compelled to leave their place of employment – due to the unpopularity of their political viewpoints (Google), and the like.

Add to this the social “virtue signaling” of some companies and brands who have become involved in social action initiatives (Gillette’s “shaming” of purported male personality traits in its “toxic masculinity” ad campaign).

With the 2020 presidential election campaign on our doorstep and the prospects of continued “high dudgeon” on the part of many people we can charitably refer to as being “highly sensitized” to the campaign, it’s worth wondering what everyday employees think of all this socio-political drama.

If the results of a new survey are any indication, the answer is … “not much.”

Recently, Washington, DC-based business management consulting firm Clutch surveyed ~500 full-time employees working at a cross-section of American businesses ranging from small employers to enterprises with more than 1,000 workers. The breakdown of the research sample included respondents whose philosophical leanings mirror the country’s as a whole (34% conservative, 25% liberal, 21% moderate, 13% apolitical).

What these respondents said should make everyone want to go back to the standards of yesteryear — you know, when socio-political advocacy in the office was considered the height of boorishness.

Among the salient findings from the survey:

  • Most respondents (~60%) don’t know if their political beliefs align with those of their coworkers. What’s more, they don’t care to know what their coworkers think politically.
  • Money, not socio-political alignment, motivates where people choose to work. Whether or not their personal views align with their colleagues’ is of no (or very little) concern to the respondents.  What’s more, few care.
  • Less than one in ten of the survey respondents feel that a “dominant” political viewpoint in the office that doesn’t happen to align with theirs is a source of discomfort. But either way, they’d prefer that such discussions not happen in the first place.
  • Despite the well-intentioned actions of some companies and brands, the majority of respondents feel that engaging in political or similar “cause” expressions adds no value to a company’s culture – nor does it create a healthy exchange of ideas in the workplace. Only about one-third of the respondents think that airing differing views will have beneficial outcomes within the office, while for everyone else, such discussions are viewed as having a “net negative” effect, adding no incremental value to a company’s “culture.”
  • At the same time that respondents wish for a less politically charged atmosphere in the office, a majority of them disagree with the notion of “codifying” political expression and expected behaviors in an employee manual or some other formal written policy statement. In other words, what constitutes “being an adult” isn’t something that should have to be spelled out in so many words.
  • What do respondents think of company owners or leaders expressing their political opinions or taking stands on controversial issues? That’s frowned upon, too. A clear majority of employees (~60%) disagree that company leadership should take stances on political issues – even if they’re relevant to their company’s own products or services. Instead, employees expect leaders to foster a culture of respect at work, including setting a standard that discourages political conversations up and down the chain.

There’s an important side benefit to discouraging discussion of socio-political topics in the office setting. All it takes is for a few “loudmouth” employees to risk creating a hostile work environment – and thus the open up grounds for complaints that could ultimately result in enormous financial costs to the company.

And one important final point came out of the Clutch research: For many employees, a part of their identities as people is connected to where they work.  Often, being an employee means more than simply having a job that pays the bills.  Anything that companies and brands can do to make that identity “work” for the vast majority of their employees will go a good way towards keeping morale high and avoiding the kind of fraught “drama” that can make it onto social media or even the news broadcasts.

[More information about the Clutch survey results can be accessed here.]

What about you?  What’s been your personal experience with employers in the “woke” era? Is your workplace one that is tolerant of all viewpoints while avoiding showing explicit (or implicit) support for any one view?  How successful has your company been in the current environment?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The promise — and peril? — of microchip implants for people.

In 2017, when employee volunteers at Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based technology company, agreed to have microchips implanted in their wrists so that they could access the company’s lunchroom vending machines without exchanging money, some people tittered.

At best, it was viewed as a publicity effort to draw attention to the firm and its work in the microchip industry.

So where are we with human microchip implants two years later? Well … not so far along in some ways, and yet things may be poised for a sea change in the not-too-distant future.

And actually, it has less to do with human microchip implants as a convenience as it does with their potential to revolutionize health monitoring and medical diagnoses.

Biohax International, a Swedish-based company founded more than five years ago, is further along on the development curve than most other developers in the field. According to a report from Thomas Industry Insights, thousands of Swedes now have microchip implants, and the number is expected to continue growing at a robust pace.

At present, Biohax chip implants can house anything from emergency contact information to FOB and other access capabilities for cars, homes and even public transportation.

But the next frontier looks to be in healthcare. At present, prototype microchips are being developed that will enable continual monitoring of a person’s vital signs – things like glucose monitoring and blood pressure monitoring.

It isn’t difficult to imagine a day when certain patients are prescribed potentially lifesaving microchip implants that will serve as “early warnings” to nascent health emergencies.

Is this the future?

There could be a downside, of course – there nearly always is with these sorts of things, it seems. What does a world look like where physicians, insurance companies, employers or credit card companies make implants a mandatory condition for service or employment?

How far of a line is it to go from that to being part of a “surveillance state”?

And even if the situation never came to that, would people who demur from participating voluntarily in the “microchip revolution” be somehow walled off from the benefits microchips could deliver – thereby becoming “second-class citizens”?

The ethical questions about human microchip implants are likely to be with us for some time to come — and it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Do you have particular opinions about the “promise and peril” of microchip implants? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.