Tag Archives: professor

China’s Facial Recognition System

China is about to launch a new facial recognition system “which will be used in public places, such as airports, post offices, customs entrances and even residential communities”, according to today’s China Daily (no URL available yet.)

The invention, developed by Su Guangda, an Electronic Engineering Department professor with Beijing-based Tsinghua University, has been approved by a panel of experts from the Ministry of Public Security, the paper says. The system “excels at capturing moving facial images and features a multi-camera technology to lower the error for mismatching.”

Of course this is a sensitive area, particularly in China. The paper says the technology is already in place, but “limited to police use. The technology has helped the police in Beijing solve a few criminal cases involving child abduction and supermarket blackmail in the past few years.” But its creator is quoted as pushing for broader use, saying residential communities, airports and banks could use it. Since China has no fingerprint database for the general public, instead the photo on the national ID card “might help establish a facial database easily.”

Su said one feature of the system is the use of multiple cameras to limit errors, although it’s not clear from the report whether we’re talking multple cameras at an entry point to capture different profiles of the face, or millions of cameras all over the place to capture everyone everywhere.

The professor does acknowledge privacy concerns. His solution: “As long as you don’t save the picture in the computer and just scan individual faces quickly, the privacy violation is not an issue,” Su said. “And we could realize that by avoiding adding a picture saving function to the technology,” he said.

I’m no expert, but I don’t really see how that is a solution. Surely that could easily be circumvented by an over-eager security team, and in any case, it doesn’t really address the underlying concerns about use of facial recognition, although maybe that horse has already bolted. An earlier piece in the China Daily said the database already has 2.56 million faces and can make a face match within a second and has been in use for a year to catch suspects on the run.

Why Hasn’t China Cracked Down on Its Rainmen?

Another mainstream media look at the alleged “Titan Rain” cyberwar strategy of the Chinese, where organised, highly disciplined and experienced gangs ferret around in Western computers. This one is from today’s Guardian Unlimited — Smash and grab, the hi-tech way:

Sources involved in tracking down the gang say the Chinese group is just one of a number of organised groups around the world that are involved in a hi-tech crime wave, some working for governments, others highly organised criminal gangs. “We have seen three attacks a day from this group in the past week and there are a lot of other groups out there,” said the source. “You could say that the iceberg is now in view.”

That said, it seems clear that this kind of thing has some government sanction:

Privately, UK civil servants familiar with NISCC’s investigation agree that the attacks on the UK and US are coming from China. This almost certainly means some state sanction or involvement – perhaps even a “shopping list” of requirements. Some of the attacks have been aimed at parts of the UK government dealing with human rights issues – “a very odd target”, according to one UK security source.

The point is that Internet activity is heavily circumscribed in China:

There is another, more compelling reason. “Hacking in China carries the death penalty,” says Professor Neil Barrett, of the Royal Military College at Shrivenham. “You also have to sign on with the police if you want to use the internet. And then there is the Great Firewall of China, which lets very little through – and lets [the Chinese government] know exactly what is happening.” The internet traffic to the UK, and its origin, would all be visible to the Chinese government. Finding the culprits would, in theory, be a simple process.

So why are they still out there, and why can we narrow down their workplace to a single province?

How To Get a Good Idea, Part I

Reading at the moment Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who mentions the trick German experimental physicist Heinz Maier-Leibnitz used to do in boring conferences to entertain himself and to measure the lengths of his trains of thought — microflows, in Csikszentmihalyi’s words. The passage is conveyed in full here:

Professor Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, a German experimental physicist, suffers from an occupational handicap common to academics: having to sit through endless, often boring, conferences. To alleviate this burden, he invented a private activity that provides just enough challenges for him not to be completely bored during a dull lecture, but is so automated that it leaves enough attention free so that if something interesting is being said, it will register his awareness. What he does is this: whenever a speaker begins to get tedious, he starts to tap his right thumb once, then the third finger of the right hand, then the index finger, then the fourth finger, then the third finger again, and then the little finger of the right hand. Then he moves to the left hand and taps the little finger, the middle finger, the fourth finger, the index, and the middle finger again, and ends with the thumb on the left hand. Then the right hand reverses the sequence of the tapping, followed by the reverse of the left hand’s sequence. It turns out that by introducing full and half stops at regular intervals, there are 888 combinations one can move through without repeating the same pattern (Csikszentmilhalyi 1990).

The point about this is it’s not so much a game as a way of measuring the length of each microflow — a train of thought that takes a short journey, while being vaguely aware of what else is going on. Csikszentmilhalyi was able to use his finger tapping technique to measure precisely the length of each microflow.

Reading this it occurred to me that many of us do our best thinking stuck in boring meetings, services, concerts, films or seminars. The mind, trapped inside an immobile body, escapes on all these little excursions, returning with all sorts of insights. So why not make more of this?

Why not set up deliberately boring concerts, conferences, speeches, plays, operas and monologues so people looking for a place to ‘microflow’ can find a sanctuary? You could even charge them money. Or, if you’re someone looking for microflow yourself, you could scour the local whats-on pages for boring events which you could attend, confident you’d find a bit of peace and boredom to allow your mind to wander around in. One could even start listing such events on upcoming.org or somesuch, encouraging others to seek a piece of ‘microflow space’.

The other thought I had about this is that when conference blogging takes place, does this remove the opportunity for wandering minds and microflow? Do the bloggers, connected in their own Wi-Fi world, then just create an alternative social space, removing the conditions that might have led each of them to great internal intellectual feats? Or does the very fact that bloggers are at the conference mean it’s unlikely to qualify as boring anyway?

Bob’s Background

Am reading Griff Rhys-Jones’ To The Baltic With Bob which is not quite as hilarious as the blurb promises, but has its moments: Bob goes along to a London art school to apply as a mature student on a computer graphics course:

‘What’s your background?’ asked the professor who interviewed him.

Bob swivelled in his chair and looked behind him. ‘Well, it’s a sort of tangerine colour,’ he said. According to Bob, this answer so amused the professor that he was instantly enrolled on the course, therefore qualifying for a large and useful grant and access to several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of expensive graphics equipment.

Kind of reminds me of those silly pub jokes we used to try out on bartenders in college:

Me: I’d like a beer, please.
Bartender: Bitter?
Me (looking into the distance, heaving a sigh): Yes, yes, I suppose I am.

or:

Me: A glass of white please.
(Not Overly Bright) Bartender: Wine?
Me: Aaaiioooowwww.

Of course, these work a lot better when you’re there. And British. And slightly drunk.

Urine, Corrosion, And The Decay Of Bridges

You have to feel sorry for designers, particularly bridge designers. How can you factor in all the variables that will determine whether your bridge survives?

Take for example, a bridge in Palembang, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Built between 1962 and 1965, the 1,177-meter long and 22-meter wide bridge was named after the then president, Sukarno. When he fell from grace it was renamed Ampera (short for Amanat Penderitaan Rakyat or the Mandate of People’s Pain, according to The Jakarta Post, In Memory Of The Suffering of the People, according to others. They were difficult times and bridge namers were not given to levity). It is a distinctive-looking bridge, with two tall towers standing like guillotines above the Musi river. It is, in short, the pride of the region.

photo by Audy Mirza Alwi

It has been repaired a few times. The Post says it was renovated in 1981 after fears that flaws in the original construction might cause it to collapse. More recently the Japanese have funded (PDF) efforts to rehabilitate the bridge, especially after some serious underwater damage (mindful, no doubt, that the bridge was originally funded by war reparations from the Pacific War.) Despite some problems (like ships bumping into the bridge), the Japanese were able to report in late 2002 that “The project has contributed positively, based on the master plan, to urban development”.

Well, up to a point. Last Friday, The Jakarta Post carried a story headlined “Bridge in Palembang may collapse due to excessive urination”. Not really much more needs to be said, but let’s spell it out. The bridge is sloping. This ‘irregular slant’ had been confirmed by Professor Annas Ali, a highway and bridge expert at the public works office who conducted research on the bridge recently (presumably by standing on it and noticing that he was not standing, as we engineers call it, ‘straight’).

Upon further inspection officials noted that, in the words of the Post, “one of the reasons for the apparent structural deterioration was due to the frequency of people urinating on one of the steel pillars of the bridge, causing it weaken due to the corrosive forces of human urine.” This deterioration can be measured since you can actually feel the bridge ‘resonating’. This was proven by the head of the city’s transportation office, Syaidina Ali, who advised the Post reporter to ”try standing on the Ampera bridge. If the traffic passing on the bridge is heavy, you can feel it moving quite a bit.” Presumably he did not advise standing under the bridge in case a colleague was corrosion testing.

If someone had been, it wasn’t anyone from the highway and bridge department at the Palembang Public Works Office, whose head, Azmi Lakoni, was quoted by the Post as saying that his office had not yet done research on the condition of the bridge. But Mr Lakoni did agree on the urine theory. “The office has not yet done thorough tests on the slant of the bridge,” he said, ”but we are concerned that one of its main support piers has been weakened by urine, as it is a popular spot for locals to relieve themselves.”

This is not the only problem facing the bridge, and it’s another bitter lesson for bridge designers. “Another problem that was pointed out,” the Post report continues, “was that people had stolen pieces of the bridge.” This is always a hazard for bridges, but not uncommon in Indonesia (or Australia, thanks to Taka. As the Post explains: “In 1998, when the country was simultaneously in a state of euphoria and confusion sparked by the reformasi movement, thieves were known to have dismantled some parts of the bridge” by climbing the two towers and removing bits of them. It’s not clear from the report whether they were euphoric or confused when they did this, but one can only hope they were not relieving themselves.

My advice to tourists thinking of visiting the area: Avoid the bridge until this whole problem is sorted. But if you do find yourself in the area you now know of a good rest stop.

Could Moblogging Replace Photojournalism?

A panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas last weekend discussed the future of moblogging — the art of creating online journals composed mostly of photos uploaded in part direct from camera-phones — and, in part, whether such activities may threaten journalism. With so many folk armed with camera phones — and some even knowing how to use them — might they be better placed to record momentous events than journalists and photographers?

Heather Somers, managing editor of the excellent Weblog of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, reports from the conference that at least one panelist was unconvinced. Molly Steenson, a professor at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy, said journalists should have no fear that they will be replaced by roving digital chroniclers. “They’re not a threat — we shouldn’t even be going there,” Somers quoted her as saying.

I’d agree. A blurry lo-res snap is not the same as a decent photo professionally taken. But camera phones bring to the table two important things: immediacy and ubiquity. If we can get pictures onto the web within seconds of an event occurring, that means that events small and large are likely to be available to a lot of people very quickly (remember that camera phones work both ways: It’s possible to receive photos as well as transmit them.) The ubiquity thing — everyone has them, and everyone is everywhere — also means that few events are likely to be witnessed without someone with access to a cameraphone.

The bottom line: While journalists are used to writing history’s first draft, I think they (we, I guess) need to get used to the idea that there may be an even earlier draft, written by tech-savvy individuals who are on the spot and have the technology to get their version, along with pictures, out to the world more quickly than we can. We need to adjust to that. In fact it’s a great resource: Now we have witnesses who can show what they saw. Would we still be in a state of confusion if moblogging had been available at the time of JFK’s assassination?

Will mobloggers replace photojournalism? No, but I think they will change it.

Is Wikipedia Reliable As A Source?

A few weeks back I wrote in my column of Wikipedia, the peer-produced online encyclopedia. Several readers and friends have asked whether it really stands up to scrutiny. How could something produced by a bunch of folk who may or may not have the qualifications, may or may not have an agenda, create something that’s objective and reliable?

Here’s a piece from the excellent Poynteronline by Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia Professor & Poynter Visiting Professor, which may convince the doubters. He says: “I was always wary of trusting Wikipedia, a giant, free, collaborative encyclopedia that’s getting lots of attention. But, slowly, I found myself impressed by some of the entries I came across.”

Internet Voting: A Minority Report?

A reader kindly pointed out this New York Times piece on the Internet voting story I posted yesterday, which highlights some other aspects of the case.

While four members of a panel asked to review the SERVE program — designed to allow Americans overseas to vote over the Net — said it was insecure and should be abandoned, the NYT quoted Accenture, the main contractor, as saying the researchers drew unwarranted conclusions about future plans for the voting project. “We are doing a small, controlled experiment,” Meg McLauglin, president of Accenture eDemocracy Services, was quoted as saying.

Another side to this pointed out by the loose wire reader: Accenture says that the four researchers were a minority voice, and that five of the six others ‘would not recommend shutting down the program’. One of the other outside reviewers, Ted Selker, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, disagreed with the report, and was quoted by the NYT as saying it reflected the professional paranoia of security researchers. “That’s their job,” he said. In response one of the four naysayers noted that they were the only members of the group who attended both of the three-day briefings about the system.

The reader also makes this observation: “One of their complaints is that the Internet is inherently unsafe, which may be true. I don’t believe that the US Postal Service (which is the current method for transmitting absentee ballots) is inherently safe either. Ever seen a bag of mail sitting in a building lobby waiting for pickup? I have.” Fair enough, but unless the bag contained ballots (something I have seen in, er, less security conscious democracies), I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, since a few tampered or misdirected ballots would not undermine the integrity of the election.

The security compromises in SERVE are likely to be at the server level, where hackers could either alter delivered votes, mimic voter activity, or disrupt legitimate voters from placing their ballot. This could be done on a scale that would undermine the integrity, or at least could be believed to do so. Remember: In an electronic election (where no parallel paper ballot is collected), a claim of largescale tampering is enough to undermine confidence in the result.

My tupennies’ worth? Although the E stands for experiment, I don’t see SERVE as a ‘controlled experiment’. The NYT says the program will be introduced “in the next few weeks” and covers seven states, and a possible 100,000 people this year. That doesn’t sound like an experiment to me. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t really see how you can conduct an experiment in a live voting environment. What happens if there’s a suggestion the system has been compromised, either during or after the vote? I always thought that voting systems were either approved, credible and acceptable or not in public use. Of course it’s fine to have an ‘experiment’ where the only experimental part is, say, the user-aspects of the voting process. But security can surely never be part of an experiment in a live voting situation.

Security experts are paid to be skeptical. If they raise a warning flag as big as this, I think they should be listened to.

News: Beware The Mobile Phone

 I have long believed that we use mobile phones too much, considering what little we know about the effects on our health. Why is why I like handsfree sets and SMS. Most studies that say they’re bad for us have been pooh-poohed. Here’s another one to throw out because we don’t like what it says.
 
The Independent quotes a new study from Sweden as saying mobile phones and the new wireless technology could cause a “whole generation” of today’s teenagers to go senile in the prime of their lives. Professor Leif Salford, who headed the research at Sweden’s prestigious Lund University, says “the voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves from hand-held mobile phones” is “the largest human biological experiment ever”. And he is concerned that, as new wireless technology spreads, people may “drown in a sea of microwaves”.

News: A Laptop Tale

 A cautionary tale with happy ending from South Africa, courtesy of The Daily News. An American professor gets robbed of his laptop at gunpoint, having inexplicably failed to back up years of work on AIDS from his hard drive. He then tearfully relates his story to a journalist in the tiny hope that publicity may awake compassion in his muggers’ hearts.
 
 
Bottom line: back up, back up, back up, especially before a trip (and don’t carry the backup with you). Oh, and some muggers have a good side.