Barely Legally

confessions of a moot court bailiff

There’s a Camera on Your Face

Hey, remember Google Glass? It was going to change the world of wearable computing. Thankfully, Glass never made it out of the early testing phase. Astro Teller (that’s a great name) is the guy who was the project lead for Google Glass. The Daily Dot’s Taylor Hatmaker (that’s an even better name) reported on Teller’s post-mortem of Glass’s slow-motion fireball of a demise:

“I’m amazed by how sensitively people responded to some of the privacy issues,” Teller explains, expressing frustration about the backlash against Glass in public, given the prevalence of mobile video. “When someone walks into a bar wearing Glass… there are video cameras all over that bar recording everything.” If it were around a year ago “they’d be Meerkatting,” Teller joked.

“Society’s issues about privacy are completely legitimate,” Teller said. “I’m not making an apology for Google Glass. Google Glass did not move the needle… it was literally a rounding error on the number of cameras in your life.”

“It’s not about not having these bumps and scrapes—it’s about getting value from them,” Teller explained. “When I see that parade of mistakes in my mind’s eye… I just wish we could have made those mistakes faster.”

He’s amazed at how sensitively people responded to some of the privacy issues, but he thinks that Glass amounted to a rounding error in the number of cameras. That’s one hell of a false equivalence; the security cameras in a bar are not live-streaming to Google Hangouts. If they were, no one would go to that bar. That’s a big difference. Also, security cameras monitor (not stream) an area, not an individual person. Glass presented a qualitative camera difference, not a quantitative difference. How you can completely miss that is beyond me.

Despite all this, Teller pronounces society’s “issues about privacy” to be completely legitimate. That’s good. He’s right. In fact, the company he works for, Google, is neck and neck with Facebook for the title of company that best exploits personal information for corporate benefit. His bosses have created one of the primary sources of society’s issues outside of military superpowers’ intelligence operations.

But let’s back up for a second. Let’s pretend for a second that Teller is right, and Glass was just a rounding error in the amount of cameras in our lives. This requires us to pretend that we don’t understand the qualitative/quantitative distinction, but bear with me.

There’s a difference between this “rounding error” loss of privacy coming from Google and coming from some App Of The Week. One is an amateur operation, and the other is the world’s greatest exploiter of personal information. Sure, the one aspires to become (or be bought by) the other, but they’re worlds apart in the effectiveness of their operation. It’s like if someone sideswipes your parked car; you’ll feel differently if the driver was drunk and has a half-dozen DUIs than you will if the driver had a momentary lapse of concentration and has a spotless record. Google building Glass is qualitatively different from some random company building Glass.

If this is how Glass was going to be run, I’m extremely thankful that Google pulled the plug.

Four Million License Plates

Ars Technica’s Cyrus Farivar filed a Public Records Request with the city of Oakland, California for the Oakland Police Department’s license plate database. The OPD apparently has 4.6 million geotagged photos of license plates of cars in and around Oakland. There are plenty of police departments around the country doing this sort of thing.

I haven’t read an awful lot about these kinds of programs, and I’m not of any particularly strong opinion about the constitutionality (or lack thereof) of them. But Farivar does some excellent reporting on Oakland’s data:

Specialized [License Plate Reader] cameras mounted in fixed locations or on police cars typically scan passing license plates using optical character recognition technology, checking each plate against a “hot list” of stolen or wanted vehicles. […] Some cities have even mounted such cameras at their city borders, monitoring who comes in and out, including the wealthy city of Piedmont, California, which is totally surrounded by Oakland.

LPR collection began in Oakland back in 2006, and an early OPD analysis showed that the overwhelming majority of the data collected was not a “hit.” In April 2008, the OPD reported to the city council that after using just four LPR units for 16 months, it had read 793,273 plates and had 2,012 hits—a “hit rate” of 0.2 percent. In other words, nearly all of the data collected by an LPR system concerns people not currently under suspicion.

Despite this, in that same report, then-OPD Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki (who has since retired) dubbed the LPR setup an “overwhelming success.” Today, OPD’s LPR hit rate has fallen slightly, to just 0.16 percent.”

So wait. For every stolen car they found, the police were scanning nearly 400 cars? Like I said, I’m not sure this is necessarily unconstitutional, but it does seem wildly inefficient. It doesn’t seem even remotely successful, let alone “overwhelmingly” so. Though honestly, out of all the things cops could be spending their (our) money on, I’m not exactly going to complain about this kind of silliness.

Ars isn’t just spitballing about the accuracy here. In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation looked at just eight days of Oakland’s license plate data, and concluded that Oakland’s license plate camera program was a pointless dragnet that ignored the actual locations of crimes. The police scans weren’t entirely random, however; when the EFF overlaid census data on the license plate data, they found that the dragnet was focused on areas with predominantly black and hispanic populations. Maybe that helps explain the poor hit rate.

That’s pretty lousy, but to give some small amount of credit where credit is due; the OPD’s scans didn’t appear to correspond to the locations of mosques, which is more than you can say about New York.

Dammit, He Gets Results

Austin Walker, writing for Paste Magazine, wrote one of the best video game reviews I’ve ever read, about Battlefield Hardline. BF:H comes from a long pedigree of military shooter games, but now it’s about cops. Yes, as a country, we’ve spent the last seven months watching the results of local police forces acting more and more like soldiers in our own streets. Yes, the review addresses that. This is a grown-up video game review.

Actually, the review addresses the entire failed narrative of the game:

At the climax of Episode 4 — the open air mall, the neon signs, the hurricane force wind and rain — I noticed something. With my experience bar nearly full, I slammed a “Warranted” suspect to the ground and collected my Expert Points. But I didn’t level up. Less than halfway through the game, I’d capped out at Expert Level 15. Only then did I realize how empty this incentivization was. What do you get for unlocking expert levels? New, more lethal weapons. New scopes. A laser sight. Special, more deadly slugs for your shotgun. I couldn’t add a scope to my Taser. I couldn’t unlock new ways of safely apprehending suspects.

Being “Good Police” only offered me new ways to be the worst sort of police. And that wasn’t the end of it.

I realized that time and again, the game had acted as if I’d been gunning folks down when I wasn’t. Even when I carefully and cautiously arrested every single enemy in a level, Mendoza would sprint into a cut-scene, out of breath and covered in sweat from a gunfight that never happened. “Jesus Nick,” one character said, “Nice shooting. I’m officially scared of you.”

This is the kind of criticism you get about art. Movies, TV, novels, music, etc. do not exist in a vacuum; there is a political, cultural, and social backdrop to these things. This video game review puts Battlefield Hardline in its context.

I don’t mean to make it sound like a mind-blowing concept; quite the opposite. If games are art, then they have to be criticized as art. Lazy, sloppy, shooters ought to be called out as such. It’s 2015. If you’re not bringing anything to the table beyond “Lethal Weapon If It Were NC-17”, well, you’re … going to make tons of money.

All right, nerds. Hand in your badge.

The Case for Free Range Parenting

The International New York Times’s Clemens Wergin takes a break from writing about foreign policy to write about something much more contentious; parenting.

Specifically, parents who safely shelter their children away from all possible danger:

Today’s parents enjoyed a completely different American childhood. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia conducted interviews with 100 parents. “Nearly all respondents remember childhoods of nearly unlimited freedom, when they could ride bicycles and wander through woods, streets, parks, unmonitored by their parents,” writes Jeffrey Dill, one of the researchers.

But when it comes to their own children, the same respondents were terrified by the idea of giving them only a fraction of the freedom they once enjoyed. Many cited fear of abduction, even though crime rates have declined significantly. The most recent in-depth study found that, in 1999, only 115 children nationwide were victims of a “stereotypical kidnapping” by a stranger; the overwhelming majority were abducted by a family member.

That same year, 2,931 children under 15 died as passengers in car accidents. Driving children around is statistically more dangerous than letting them roam freely.

Just over a hundred kids snatched off the street. For comparison, in 2010, there were 156 kids killed by guns in their own homes. Check the math yourself in the almost unbearably grim National Violent Death Reporting System.

More kids are shot to death at home or killed in a car accident than are be kidnapped. Don’t be an innumerate parent.

Apple, the Sausage Fest At

Kashmir Hill, writing in Fusion:

Last night, Apple pushed out iOS 8.2 to my iPhone, an update to its operating system. The blurb for the update promised “improvements to the Health app.” Finally, I thought. When HealthKit was first introduced last year, it came under criticism for not taking women’s health needs into consideration.

The Apple app tracks an amazing assortment of possible health indicators: sleep, body mass index, number of times fallen, “electrodermal activity,” sleep, weight, sodium intake, copper intake, and even selenium intake. But it didn’t track the one thing most women want to track: their periods.

Spoiler alert: iOS 8.2 still doesn’t add support for tracking menstrual cycles. It’s apparently really difficult to find and/or talk to a woman at Apple, because this seems like a really basic thing to measure. If I can track selenium, half the people on the planet ought to be able to track their periods. It’s dumbfounding.