Sequim, Washington: To Swim or to Shoot?

According to a recent post in the International Business Edge, the small town of Sequim, WA, has an Identity Crisis … big time:

“The U.S. town of Sequim, Washington has long claimed that ‘in the native language of the S’Klallam tribe, ‘S’Kwim’ means quiet waters,’ as indicated on the town website. However, a linguist recently revealed that a correct translation would actually be ‘a place for going to shoot.’”

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Quiet Waters” or “A place for going to shoot.”  Quite a contrast, don’t you think?

For more insight, you can Listen to the story on NPR.org or read the article by the Associated Press.

With shooting potentially involved, I wonder why NRA.org hasn’t picked up the story!

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Why face recognition isn’t scary — yet

Note: I created this post for my professional blog:  Discovering Identity.  Yet the implications this advancing facial recognition technology has on our personal freedoms made it pertinent to our I Love Freedom theme.  Enjoy!

Thanks to Malisa Vincenti, leader of the LinkedIn Group Security & Technology – Critical Infrastructure Network & Forum, for highlighting the CNN article entitled “Why face recognition isn’t scary – yet.”

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Much of the article was dedicated to describing the benefits and deficiencies of facial recognition software used by online services like Facebook, Picasa and iPhoto to make it easier for users to keep track of photographs.  Speaking of such functionality,  Michael Sipe, vice president of product development at Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition, a Carnegie Mellon University split-off company that makes face-recognizing software said these types of photo programs are a response to the hassles of keeping track of growing digital photo collections.

"In general, there’s this tsunami of visual information — images and video — and the tools that people have to make sense of all that information haven’t kept pace with the growth of the production of that information," he said. "What we have is a tool to help extract meaning from that information by using the most important part of that media, which is people."

It is interesting that one of the most distinguishing attribute of a person’s identity – his or her face – is so difficult for computers to recognize.  We humans often say, “I can remember faces much better than names,” yet computers are just the opposite.  It turns out that a person’s smile, which may be one of the most easily-remembered feature of the human face (for us humans, at least), is the most difficult for computers to comprehend:

Anil Jain, a distinguished professor of computer science at Michigan State University, said it’s still not easy, however, for computers to identify faces from photos — mostly because the photos people post to the internet are so diverse.

Computers get confused when a photo is too dark, if it’s taken from a weird angle, if the person is wearing a scarf, beard or glasses or if the person in the photo has aged significantly, he said.

Smiling can even be a problem.

"The face is like a deformable surface," he said. "When you smile, different parts of the face get affected differently. It’s not just like moving some object from one position to another," which would be easier for a computer to read.

So … what will happen when this technology matures and makes the leap from family-friendly Facebook to applications in real live security or survellance applications?

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the motives behind the technology are what worry him.

Governments and corporations intend to use facial recognition software to track the public and to eliminate privacy, he said, noting that automatically identifying people in public in the U.S., when they are not suspected of a crime, could be a violation of constitutional rights.

When facial recognition comes to surveillance cameras, which are already in place, "you’re no longer racing through iPhoto to figure out how many pictures of Barbara you have," Rotenberg said. "You’re walking around in public and facing cameras that know who you are. And I think that’s a little creepy."

I suppose this is like many other technologies – there are an abundance of positive applications, and the potential for terribly nefarious uses.

For example, if facial recognition can be used to identify  terrorists so they could be detained prior to boarding airplanes, we would generally think that was a good application. 

Similarly, if I could be granted entrance to my corporate office building or be logged onto necessary computer systems just by smiling (or frowning) into a camera, the building and computer systems might be more secure and the present-day use of passwords or ID cards might go the way of the buggy whip.

However, if an abusive husband used facial recognition software to stalk his estranged wife, or if the government successfully tracked every movement its citizens made in the normal course of events, we would generally think of those applications as negative.

I have a crazy habit of smiling and waving at security cameras I see in airports or banks or convenience stores. Who knows what is happening on the other side?  At the present level of today’s technology, I’m probably being recorded and not much more.  In a few years, however, the sophisticated software behind the camera will probably recognize Mark Dixon and report my antics to the NSA.  That will surely make me frown, not smile, when I wave to the ubiquitous cameras.

Are You a Perfect Citizen? I Will Listen and Find Out.

(Note: I published this article first on my professional blog, “Discovering Identity,” but felt the subject matter touched very close to the Security vs. Freedom debate in which we so often find ourselves.)

The Wall Street Journal published an excellent article today entitled, “U.S. Program to Detect Cyber Attacks on Infrastructure” (subscription required),  reviewing a large U.S. government program, named “Perfect Citizen,” with the stated objective to:

“… detect cyber assaults on private U.S. companies and government agencies running critical infrastructure such as the electricity grid and nuclear power plants, according to people familiar with the program.”

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We all know that the national infrastructure is vulnerable, as I mentioned recently in my blog about NERC Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Cyber Security Standards. The object of this program appears to be an attempt to discover security holes that may not be CIP compliant, and detect patterns of attack before harm can be done.

U.S. intelligence officials have grown increasingly alarmed about what they believe to be Chinese and Russian surveillance of computer systems that control the electric grid and other U.S. infrastructure. Officials are unable to describe the full scope of the problem, however, because they have had limited ability to pull together all the private data.

How do you tackle this challenge?  Just monitor the network and find “unusual activity” that may suggest a pending cyber attack.

The surveillance by the National Security Agency, the government’s chief eavesdropping agency, would rely on a set of sensors deployed in computer networks for critical infrastructure that would be triggered by unusual activity suggesting an impending cyber attack, though it wouldn’t persistently monitor the whole system.

This accumulation and analysis of vast amounts of data from numerous sensors is a fascinating topic.  Last September, I blogged about work led by Jeff Jonas to analyze large data sets to detect the types of anomalies the NSA are seeking – all to catch threats to the Las Vegas gaming industry.  It would be interesting to know if the NSA is building upon his work to find terrorists before they strike.

Of course, any surveillance program led by the NSA is bound to be controversial, and this is no exception:

Some industry and government officials familiar with the program see Perfect Citizen as an intrusion by the NSA into domestic affairs, while others say it is an important program to combat an emerging security threat that only the NSA is equipped to provide.

Who knows … perhaps some day the NSA wizards might think my blogging efforts are a threat to national security and plant sensors to detect my email, blogging and social networking communications activity to see if something fishy is going on.   After all, I am not a “Perfect Citizen,” whatever that means.  No one is.

"The overall purpose of the [program] is our Government…feel[s] that they need to insure the Public Sector is doing all they can to secure Infrastructure critical to our National Security," said one internal Raytheon email, the text of which was seen by The Wall Street Journal. "Perfect Citizen is Big Brother."

It will be fascinating, in an apprehensive way, to see how this all comes together:

Because the program is still in the early stages, much remains to be worked out, such as which computer control systems will be monitored and how the data will be collected. NSA would likely start with the systems that have the most important security implications if attacked, such as electric, nuclear, and air-traffic-control systems, they said.

I doubt that covert surveillance of US citizens is the initial intent of this program, but unintended consequences are what trouble me.  For some diabolical reason, increasing the amount of power vested in any one person or group of people tends to lead to oppression of others.  And it sounds like this program will put vast informational power in the hands of a few.