Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger


Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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Why Facial-Recognition Technology Didn't Help ID the Tsarnaevs

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 9:01 AM EDT

You know how it's supposed to work. There's a movie about the future with a bad guy and some good guys. The good guys scan a picture of the bad guy into a computer, the computer quickly cross-references the image against enormous, ominous databases, up pops his name, and they go after him.

Not so much in real life.

For a few hours each year, during the Boston Marathon, the 600 block of Boylston Street is the most photographed place on Earth, what with all the family, friends, tourists, news crews, and commercial photographers. So it was a perfect setting for the FBI to make use of facial-recognition technology. But even though Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev's images existed in official databases, the brothers were not identified that way—because we just aren't that advanced yet.

Facial-recognition technology turns a photograph into a biometric template that can be matched with photos attached to names in other databases. Last summer, the FBI launched a $1 billion facial-recognition program called the Next Generation Identification (NGI) project as a pilot in several states. Once fully implemented, the security program is designed to include some 12 million searchable mug shots as well as voice recognition and iris scans. The FBI would not confirm if the program is being piloted in Massachusetts, but even if it were, it may not have been useful since it is unclear whether the brothers had criminal records. But the FBI also has access to the State Department's passport and visa facial-recognition databases, and can get similar DMV information from the 30-odd states that have it, including Massachusetts. Both brothers had Massachusetts driver's licenses, so it would seem they would be traceable. (Tamerlan's name was also included in a federal government travel-screening database in 2011 after the FBI investigated him for possible terrorist activity at Russia's request, but the government's databases related to immigration, customs, and border-related interactions do not yet have facial-recognition capabilities.)

But in order for facial recognition to work, you need a high-quality frontal photo of the face you want matched. If you have that, research shows, you can pick a suspect out of more than a million mug shots 92 percent of the time. But the image that the FBI captured of the Tsarnaevs from surveillance camera images was grainy and taken from far away, which would have drastically limited the effectiveness of the technology.

Paul Schuepp, CEO and president of Animetrics, one of the facial-recognition companies the FBI contracts with, says that by the time the suspects' faces were zoomed in on, there were only a few dozen pixels per face. "When you've got like five pixels between the eyes, you're done," he says. "There's just not enough data on the face [and] the computer has a impossible time." Schuepp says that the Tsarnaevs' faces were also angled away from the camera, and Tamerlan's sunglasses and hat didn't help either. "Some [news] networks were saying they got good pictures, but the pictures really sucked," he says.

Instead, the FBI released the photos of the two suspects last Thursday and depended on old-fashioned eyeballs to do the work. "It’s likely that the breakthroughs in the case were made by sharp-eyed investigators," Bloomberg News reported, "spotting one of the suspects dropping a bag at the site of one of the two bombings in the surveillance footage, then matching the face with an image from the security camera of the 7-Eleven in Cambridge" that was the scene of an armed robbed on Thursday. Jeff Bauman, the runner who lost both his legs in the explosion, also helped ID the suspects after he woke up in the hospital.

"Even at a distance, as a human being you could recognize that person," Schuepp says.

But facial-recognition technology has been used successfully in another bombing case; it helped in the investigation of of the Times Square bombing attempt in in 2010. And the FBI is hard at work to expand the NGI program. Bloomberg News reported that "the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the NYPD have also expressed interest in more exotic technologies, including one that analyzes people's gait for clues as to whether they're carrying a bomb. Programmers are developing machine vision techniques that can link images of the same person across different video cameras or spot behaviors that are out of the ordinary for a certain setting (e.g., leaving a bag unattended in a public place)."

Civil libertarians worry that eventually these kinds of technologies could soon become all too effective, tracking people in the streets whether they’re suspected of a crime or not. And the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, calls the NGI a huge boondoggle. "With technology moving so fast and assaults on our freedoms, privacy and otherwise, occurring with increasing frequency," charged the group in a September 2012 statement on the NGI project, "there is little hope of turning back this technological, corporate, and governmental juggernaut."

This article has been revised.

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Wall Street Is Scared of Guns

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 10:23 AM EDT

A .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, similar to the one Adam Lanza used in the Newtown shooting.

Over the past year, Wall Street has had a few image problems: money-laundering scandals, interest rate fixing scandals, and mortgage lending scandals. The Street doesn't seem too worried about playing with fire, though. And why should it be? Profits are up. But there is one thing that financiers don't want to mess with: guns. Reuters and the Wall Street Journal report that many banks are unwilling to bid for Freedom Group, the company that made the Bushmaster assault rifle that Adam Lanza used to murder 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut in December.

Immediately after the December tragedy, Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that owns Freedom Group, decided to sell the company as a way to avoid negative publicity during the ensuing gun-control debate. In order to create a starting price to auction off the gun manufacturer, Cerberus is planning to place its own bid, in conjunction with other investors, in which it will have a minority financial stake.

But it's looking like those necessary extra investors are not interested. As the Journal reports that "negative publicity around guns has already weighed on the process. Citing [PR] concerns, some investment banks declined to aid Cerberus in the sale." Columnist Robert Cyran writes at Reuters that "this cold shoulder from lenders could make selling Freedom Group more difficult." The Journal, citing people familiar with the potential bid, says that "it remains possible that there will be no buyer for Freedom Group."

In this case, it seems that Wall Street has a better sense of American public opinion than the Senate, which failed to pass a bipartisan background check bill on Wednesday. Here's Reuters: "While lawmakers in Washington are only gingerly tackling the idea that some guns are more dangerous than others, this turned out to be an easy distinction for several [of the banks'] reputational risk committees to make... [A]iding a big maker of semiautomatics is a publicity disaster waiting to happen."

As Cyran puts it, '"Making assault rifles, it turns out, has joined pornography on the list of activities with risks that money can’t hide."

Top House Dem: On Social Security Cuts, Obama Is Like a Small Child

| Fri Apr. 12, 2013 11:23 AM EDT
"Here I am!"

President Barack Obama's new budget has much of his own base up in arms, particularly over $230 billion in proposed cuts to Social Security. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) convened a meeting of House Democrats to hear a closed-door debate on the proposal, which would cost retirees hundreds of dollars a year by tying the growth of monthly Social Security benefits to a new, lower measure of inflation called chained CPI. It was unclear whether the meeting changed any minds, but it certainly highlighted the divisions between the president and his party.

Speaking to reporters after the debate, many Democrats complained that Obama put the cuts on the table far too early. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House rules committee, likened Obama's negotiating skills to the eagerness of a five-year-old. "When I was a kid, I couldn't play hide and seek," she said. "The pressure was just too much on me. I would hop up and say, Here I am! This is the way this negotiation is taking place. We're trying to get a grand plan out of Republicans. It would be better instead of hollering up, Here I am! to get that agreement first, before you put it in your budget."

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said she could envision putting chained CPI in the budget, but only as a product of negotiations, not as an initial offer, and only as part of a grand bargain with additional revenues, and investments in other progressive priorities. "We don't know what the other side is willing to offer," she said. "We cannot give anything on a silver platter."*

Other Democrats were outright opposed to the president's plan. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) looked positively distraught. "I can only say that the Progressive Caucus is dead set against it," he said. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she had no idea why Obama is embracing what was initially a Republican idea. "Chained CPI was a bad idea when [GOP Speaker of the House John] Boehner had it, and it's a bad idea now," she said, adding that measure would hurt seniors much more than the recent tax hikes on high-earners hurt them. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has calculated that switching to chained CPI would cut about 2 percent of seniors' retirement income over 20 years. By contrast, the hit that the rich got from Obama's New Year's tax increases was only 0.6 percent.*

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said she hopes her party doesn't cave and line up behind the president. "This is so serious because…it will last forever," she said. "If we institutionalize the chained CPI, we will literally throw generations into poverty."

The debate House Democrats attended pitted Damon Silvers, the associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO, against Robert Greenstein, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Silvers adamantly opposes chained CPI. Greenstein argues that the plan could be workable, but only if included in a bipartisan deal that preserves spending on things like antipoverty programs and infrastructure, and contains protections for the oldest and poorest beneficiaries, as the president's budget does.

Pelosi suggested that many in her caucus thought chained CPI should be preserved as an option for making Social Security solvent in the long run, not as a way to pay down the national debt. "The deficit is not about Social Security," said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J). "What puzzles me is why the president would do this."

But nearly every House Democrat who spoke to reporters after the event suggested that, other criticisms aside, Obama's chained CPI proposal is bad politics. "Our brand is the party that brought you Social Security," Holt said. Slaughter added that she has been swamped with calls by unhappy constituents opposing the president's idea. "I'm at a loss for words," she said. "There are so many people living hand to mouth, day to day."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Rep. Velázquez and Rep.Schakowsky's names.

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