TBR News October 13, 2016

Oct 13 2016

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C.  October 13, 2016:”Governments are frantically developing more and more devices designed to spy on their populations. They have penetrated the email systems, the telephone systems, they control the social network systems like Facebook, they even can find out about children’s classes in grade school. And now we see that not even birds can be considered harmless.

Researchers at the University of Maryland have developed a robot bird whose wings can flap independently of each other.

Called the “Robo Raven,” the breakthrough engineering technology allows the robot to achieve any desired motion and to perform aerobatic maneuvers.

Developed by University of Maryland Professors S.K. Gupta and Hugh Bruck and their students, the robot birds could one day be used for reconnaissance and surveillance.

The final design enables a tiny video camera, can be launched from the ground, and can fly in winds up to 10 mph.

The micro air bird even fooled a local hawk, which attacked the robot in mid-flight on more than one occasion.”

Say ‘Hi’ to the NSA in Your Next Email

Sources say Yahoo let government malware scan the contents of all emails sent to Yahoo accounts. And why would the feds stop with Yahoo?

October 11, 2016

by Andrea Castillo


It’s been a rough month for Yahoo. Within a few weeks, the struggling tech-company was accused of undermining its customers’ security and privacy, after a massive hack of user-data from 2014 was followed-up this fall with allegations of involvement in an unprecedented government surveillance program. The question now is whether more tech companies are secretly complying with federal orders to spy on us.

For Yahoo, the woes started in late September, when chief information security officer (CISO) Bob Lord delivered some harsh news on the firm’s official Tumblr account: Yahoo had been hacked. Lord confessed that the account information of some half a billion customers had been extracted and rested in the hands of unknown parties. Fortunately, no financial information appears to have been leaked. Still, the names, email addresses, birthdays, telephone numbers, security questions, and passwords of 500 million users had been successfully lifted in the 2014 incident.

Then, in early October, Reuters reported that Yahoo secretly allowed a massive government surveillance program to scan all incoming emails to Yahoo accounts. The custom software program was reportedly built by Yahoo at the behest of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI, at the direction of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge.

According to Reuters’ unidentified sources (“three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events”), the decision of Yahoo Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Marissa Mayer to follow the directive angered some senior executives at Yahoo, and led to the departure of then-CISO Alex Stamos in June 2015.

The New York Times reports a history of skirmishes between Stamos and Yahoo executives over how much to invest in security. Stamos, who is known in the industry as somewhat of a privacy and security hardliner, often butted heads with Mayer, the Times said. Mayer was fearful that the introduction of standard security measures, like an automatic reset of all user passwords, would anger Yahoo users and drive them away to other services. Yet few things can drive users away quite like a record-setting security breach…

After the hack was revealed, Yahoo encouraged affected users to change their passwords and security questions immediately. But this was almost certainly too little, too late. Many people re-use the same exact password and security questions for many, if not all, of their online accounts. A criminal who had the hacked data could have gained access to all sorts of users’ other accounts with these “master” passwords and answers to security questions. Even if this hasn’t happened yet, many Yahoo users won’t change their passwords for other websites and a good number won’t even change their Yahoo passwords.

The company was quick to blame the attack on “state-backed actors.” But as some skeptical information-security experts have pointed out, this excuse is often deployed to downplay suggestion of company negligence. In the words of security writer Bruce Schneier, “‘state-sponsored actor’ is often code for ‘please don’t blame us for our shoddy security because it was a really sophisticated attacker and we can’t be expected to defend ourselves against that.'”

Unfortunately for Yahoo, the hacking news broke right in the middle of a $4.83 billion acquisition deal with Verizon. The purchase was expected to infuse new direction and capital into the legacy tech-company. Now, it looks like Verizon may be hoping to get a $1 billion discount if it does go ahead with the deal.

But the hacking of Yahoo-user account data is small compared to recent revelations about the company cooperating with government surveillance. It’s unclear what exactly the NSA and FBI were looking for, but sources told The New York Times that some Yahoo tools to scan emails for spam and child-pornography had been modified to scan for email signatures linked to a state-sponsored terrorist groups.

Others took issue with this characterization, however, with Motherboard reporting that the program was not designed or intentionally installed by Yahoo’s security team at all. According to Motherboard’s anonymous sources within Yahoo, the “poorly designed” and “buggy” malware was injected by external groups. When it was discovered internally, in May 2015, “they assumed it was a rootkit installed by hackers,” one source said. “If it was just a slight modification to the spam and child pornography filters, the security team wouldn’t have noticed and freaked out.”

In this version of events, it’s unclear who initially injected the government malware. After it was uncovered by the security team, however, Yahoo management was alerted—and took swift measures to keep it a secret.

In a statement, Yahoo simply said: “Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States.”

Whether the surveillance program was custom-built or passively allowed, it seems clear that it was at least tacitly approved of by Yahoo executives.

This represents a novel public-private surveillance partnership. Tech companies have collaborated with government snooping in the past, of course, when required by law. But this has typically been limited to the searching of stored communications or the targeting of a limited number of accounts for detailed scanning. In this situation, Yahoo allegedly allowed software to scan the contents of all emails sent to Yahoo accounts in real time, including those sent from within the United States.

Intelligence agencies are subject to relatively stricter limitations when undertaking surveillance that affects what’s called a “U.S. person.” Some NSA watchers believe that reports that this program was a “directive” suggests that this program may have been authorized under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which is not supposed to intentionally target communications of U.S. persons.

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) attorney Andrew Crocker told The Guardian that the Yahoo program looks like a hybrid of bulk data-collection programs revealed by Edward Snowden, PRISM and UPSTREAM. Subjecting U.S. persons to such bulk surveillance is probably a big no-no, constitutionally speaking.

But is Yahoo the only potential NSA and FBI collaborator? Intelligence agencies, seeking to cast the widest net possible, would have an incentive to seek such orders from all of the most-popular email and communication services. This is speculation, however. And other tech companies are claiming innocence.

“We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo,” said a Microsoft statement. Google went with, “We’ve never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: ‘no way.'” Facebook and Twitter likewise denied they had received any such requests, and said they would fight back if they did. And Apple, which made waves earlier this year for very publicly fighting a backdoor request from the FBI, said the same.

But the careful reader will note the fuzziness in such statements. Perhaps these companies have not engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic “like what has reported about Yahoo.” Perhaps they do it in a different manner. Or these companies may have told the NSA to take a hike, and the NSA may have installed malware to secure its aims anyway (as Motherboard suggests was the case with Yahoo). Plus, we can’t forget the extreme use of gag orders on technology providers.

Reuters was unable to verify whether tech companies other than Yahoo participated.

However deep this does or does not go, Yahoo’s worst-month-ever provides a very good lesson about security and privacy: major third-party web-service providers are full of security holes.

We trust that some combination of conscience and profit-motive will compel these companies to protect our security and privacy. Yet Yahoo seems to have failed customers on both counts: It allowed its security to falter, even though this could harm its reputation and future profitability, and it allowed government agencies to compromise customers’ privacy even though many people who worked there—especially former CISO Stamos—had a strong moral commitment to privacy. Perhaps Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have stronger institutional committments regarding privacy, or at least a sharper eye toward maintaining their profit margins. But maybe not. And if that is the case, it is only a matter of time until another “Yahoo” makes itself known.

The truth is that there are major security vulnerabilities baked into the designs of most of the technology services that we use every day. Technologies that are truly privacy- and liberty-enhancing will reflect that committment in their designs. One good example is encrypted-messaging app Signal, which is set up so developers would be unable to turn over private information to the government even if they wanted to. For now, such technologies are difficult to build and not exactly embraced enthusiastically by powerful governments. But for people who desire privacy and security that does not rely on the tech-companies’ better angels, such services present a real and hopeful alternative to the uncertain status quo.

30 Israeli, Foreign Intelligence Officers Killed in Russia’s Caliber Missile Attack in Aleppo

September 21, 2016


“The Russian warships fired three Caliber missiles at the foreign officers’ coordination operations room in Dar Ezza region in the Western part of Aleppo near Sam’an mountain, killing 30 Israeli and western officers,” the Arabic-language service of Russia’s Sputnik news agency quoted battlefield source in Aleppo as saying on Wednesday.

The operations room was located in the Western part of Aleppo province in the middle of sky-high Sam’an Mountain and old caves. The region is deep into a chain of mountains.

Several US, Turkish, Saudi, Qatari and British officers were also killed along with the Israeli officers. The foreign officers who were killed in the Aleppo operations room were directing the terrorists’ attacks in Aleppo and Idlib.

Earlier in September, the Syrian army units launched a preemptive strike on the terrorists of the so-called Aleppo Operations Room in their gathering centers near Castello road in the Northern areas of Aleppo and Mallah farms, foiling their plots to attack the region’s supply route, a source said.

The source said that the army’s artillery units attacked the terrorists’ gathering centers near Castello and Mallah farms in Zahra Abdo Rabbah, Kafar Hamra and Hurayatyn which killed and wounded dozens of militants.

Also, the Syrian air force attacked the terrorists’ supply route in Northern Aleppo towards Hayyan and Adnan as well as the supply roads in Western Aleppo towards the North and smashed the terrorists’ convoys in al-Aratab, Urom Kobra and Ma’ara al-Artiq which thwarted the terrorists’ plots and forced many of them flee towards the Turkish borders

Informed media sources disclosed earlier that the Syrian army has continued its advances in the Southern part of Aleppo, and regained control over several strategic areas in the town of Khan Touman.

“A number of key warehouses of Khan Touman are now under the Syrian army’s control,” the Arabic-language media quoted an unnamed informed source as saying.

The source noted that the Syrian air force and army’s artillery units also targeted the gathering centers and fortifications of the terrorists in Khan Touman.

Barents Sea may have ‘billions of barrels’ of undiscovered oil

October 12, 2016


The Barents Sea, including areas that lie near the Russian-Norwegian delimitation border, could hold vast crude oil reserves, an energy expert said on Wednesday. “If all the projections are correct and all uncertainties turns out positive, we are talking about billions of barrels,” the head of Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Company Kristian Krakenes told broadcaster NRK, quoted by The Local.

Krakenes says the projection was made thanks to new technology used in seismic surveys.

“Previously you mostly had a two-dimensional image created by lines crisscrossing. Now however, we have 3D data that gives us a much better picture,” Krakenes said.

“We see several areas that are reasonably shallow, which are large in size and may contain reservoirs. This includes the area near the Norwegian-Russian delimitation line in the southeast of the Barents Sea,” he added.

Norway’s largest oil company Statoil said the potential discovery would be very important for the country.

“But the Barents Sea is even more important for Norway as a nation, because that’s where the greatest potential for a future discovery of a large volume lies,” said Jez Averty, Statoil’s exploration manager.

Russia and Norway signed a treaty on maritime delimitation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean in 2010, putting end to a border dispute that started in 1970.

Wealthy San Francisco tech investors bankroll bid to ban homeless camps

The proposed law would ban tent encampments from San Francisco’s sidewalks – a visceral reminder of the city’s gaping inequality

October 12, 2016

by Julia Carrie Wong


San Francisco-A tent on a sidewalk is the only place thousands of San Franciscans have to call home. But if a few of the city’s tech billionaires and millionaires have their way, even that shelter could be taken away.

Sequoia Capital chairman Michael Moritz, tech angel investor Ron Conway, and hedge-fund investor William Oberndorf have donated $49,999 apiece to a divisive ballot measure intended to clear San Francisco’s streets of homeless encampments, according to campaign filings.

Zachary Bogue, a tech investor best known as husband to the Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, also pitched in $2,500.

Those sums may be chump change to the likes of Moritz (net worth $3.1bn), but they account for the majority of the approximately $270,000 campaign chest.

Proposition Q purports to address the most visible symptom of the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis, tent cities that crowd the sidewalks in certain neighborhoods. To the city’s housed residents, the encampments serve as a visceral reminder of the city’s gaping inequality – or as a nuisance that they wish would go away.

The proposed law would amend the city’s police code to ban tent encampments on city sidewalks. The city would be required to offer residents of an encampment 24 hours’ notice and a shelter bed or a bus ticket out of town, before being authorized to confiscate their tents and other belongings. The city would be required to store those belongings for up to 90 days.

“I strongly believe that it is not compassionate to allow human beings to live on our city streets,” wrote the measure’s author, supervisor Mark Farrell, in an op-ed. “Let’s help get the homeless into housing, not tents.”

Opponents of the measure point out that the proposed law does not include any funding for additional housing or shelters, and the city’s existing shelters have long waiting lists for beds.

“With Proposition Q, we’re just taking away someone’s tent and making them sleep on the cold concrete,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “They’re not going to disappear.”

Moreover, city workers already perform regular sweeps of homeless encampments, often working with groups of residents living in specific areas over the course of a few days or weeks to place people in shelters.

Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the campaign, said that the measure will provide the city with “one more tool which incentivizes homeless people to get out of the tents”.

“The incentive is the 24 hours’ notice,” he said.

The San Francisco Chronicle, which spearheaded a media campaign designed to urge city hall to seriously address homelessness, agreed that the measure would be ineffective and included it on their list of propositions that “don’t belong on SF’s ballot”.

Friedenbach argues that the campaign has nothing to do with homeless people, but is instead a tool being used by politicians looking to draw political distinctions in a one-party town.

“San Francisco is a liberal city, so the typical stuff they would use – anti-queer, anti-immigrant, racism, all the traditional wedges – don’t work,” she said. “Much like Trump is playing into the frustrations of Americans who are frustrated because their incomes aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, this is playing into the frustrations San Franciscans have with homelessness.”

Indeed, homelessness has been a reliably divisive issue in local elections for decades.

In 2003, the San Francisco Hotel Council ran a billboard campaign in support of an anti-panhandling law, that said that people who gave money to beggars had “supported a drug habit” or “helped spread STDs”. The Hotel Council is also backing Measure Q.

In 2010, Ron Conway was one of the primary donors to the campaign to pass a law that bans sitting or lying on the sidewalk during the day.

This type of anti-homeless, quality-of-life law is not effective in reducing homelessness. In May, a report by the city’s budget analyst found that enforcement of the city’s 36 quality-of-life laws cost more than $20m, while the number of unsheltered homeless continued to rise.

It does give politicians something to campaign about, though.

Moritz referred questions about his support for the measure to the campaign. Conway declined to comment when reached by phone. Oberndorf and Bogue did not immediately respond to queries.

U.S. military strikes Yemen after missile attacks on U.S. Navy ship

October 13, 2016

by Phil Stewart


WASHINGTON-The U.S. military launched cruise missile strikes on Thursday to knock out three coastal radar sites in areas of Yemen controlled by Iran-aligned Houthi forces, retaliating after failed missile attacks this week on a U.S. Navy destroyer, U.S. officials said.

The strikes, authorized by President Barack Obama, represent Washington’s first direct military action against suspected Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen’s conflict.

Still, the Pentagon appeared to stress the limited nature of the strikes, aimed at radar that enabled the launch of at least three missiles against the U.S. Navy ship USS Mason on Sunday and Wednesday.

“These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. Navy destroyer USS Nitze launched the Tomahawk cruise missiles around 4 a.m. (0100 GMT).

“These radars were active during previous attacks and attempted attacks on ships in the Red Sea,” including the USS Mason, one of the officials said, adding the targeted radar sites were in remote areas where the risk of civilian casualties was low.

The official identified the areas in Yemen where the radar were located as near Ras Isa, north of Mukha and near Khoka.

Shipping sources told Reuters sites were hit in the Dhubab district of Taiz province, a remote area overlooking the Bab al-Mandab Straight known for fishing and smuggling.


The failed missile attacks on the USS Mason appeared to be part of the reaction to a suspected Saudi-led strike on mourners gathered in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital Sanaa.

The Houthis, who are battling the internationally-recognized government of Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, denied any involvement in Sunday’s attempt to strike the USS Mason.

On Thursday, the Houthis reiterated a denial that they carried out the strikes and said they did not come from areas under their control, a news agency controlled by the group reported a military source as saying.

The allegations were false pretexts to “escalate aggression and cover up crimes committed against the Yemeni people”, the source said.

U.S. officials have told Reuters there were growing indications that Houthi fighters, or forces aligned with them, were responsible for Sunday’s attempted strikes, in which two coastal cruise missiles designed to target ships failed to reach the destroyer.

The missile incidents, along with an Oct. 1 strike on a vessel from the United Arab Emirates, add to questions about safety of passage for military ships around the Bab al-Mandab Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

The Houthis, who are allied to Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, have the support of many army units and control most of the north, including the capital Sanaa.

The Pentagon warned against any future attacks.

“The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate,” Cook said.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a leading member of a Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting to end Houthi control, denounced the attacks on the Mason as an attempt to target the freedom of navigation and to inflame the regional situation.

Michael Knights, an expert on Yemen’s conflict at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggested the Houthis, fighters from a Shi’ite sect, could be becoming more militarily aligned with groups such as Lebanon’s Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah.

“Targeting U.S. warships is a sign that the Houthis have decided to join the axis of resistance that currently includes Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran,” Knight said.

Although Thursday’s strikes against the radar aim to undercut the ability to track and target U.S. ships, the Houthis are still believed to possess missiles that could pose a threat.

Reuters has reported that the coastal defense cruise missiles used against the USS Mason had considerable range, fuelling concern about the kind of weaponry the Houthis appear willing to employ and some of which, U.S. officials believe, is supplied by Iran.

One of the missiles fired on Sunday traveled more than two dozen nautical miles before splashing into the Red Sea off Yemen’s southern coast, one U.S. official said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Mohammed Ghobari, Katie Paul; Editing by William Maclean and Janet Lawrence)


After US strikes Yemen, Houthis deny firing on ships

Yemeni rebels deny targeting a US ship in the Red Sea. The United States has supported the Saudi-led coalition, which has left much of the country in rubble after a year and a half of airstrikes.

October 13, 2016


Houthis deny accusations that they fired missiles at a US destroyer off Yemen’s coast. “Those claims are baseless,” a rebel official told the Saba news agency.

The Pentagon claims that missiles fired from rebel territory landed in a strait where the USS Mason guided missile destroyer and USS Ponce transport dock were operating. Neither missile struck the ships or caused damage in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

The United States has already retaliated, however, destroying rebel-controlled radar sites in attacks authorized by President Barack Obama on Wednesday.

Saudi coalition’s ‘atrocity’

Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition of an “apparent war crime” after it bombed a packed funeral in Sanaa on Saturday. In its damning report, HRW found that the bombing had killed a disproportionate number of civilians and that remnants of munitions found at the site of the attack showed that the United States had manufactured the explosives.

Yemeni rebels deny targeting a US ship in the Red Sea. The United States has supported the Saudi-led coalition, which has left much of the country in rubble after a year and a half of airstrikes.

Houthis deny accusations that they fired missiles at a US destroyer off Yemen’s coast. “Those claims are baseless,” a rebel official told the Saba news agency.

The Pentagon claims that missiles fired from rebel territory landed in a strait where the USS Mason guided missile destroyer and USS Ponce transport dock were operating. Neither missile struck the ships or caused damage in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

The United States has already retaliated, however, destroying rebel-controlled radar sites in attacks authorized by President Barack Obama on Wednesday.

Saudi coalition’s ‘atrocity’

Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition of an “apparent war crime” after it bombed a packed funeral in Sanaa on Saturday. In its damning report, HRW found that the bombing had killed a disproportionate number of civilians and that remnants of munitions found at the site of the attack showed that the United States had manufactured the explosives.

The coalition launched two airstrikes on the hall during Saturday’s services for the father of the rebel interior minister, killing nearly 140 people and wounding at least 600. The coalition may have expected rebel leaders and security officials to attend the funeral.

Coalition officials announced an internal inquiry. HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson called for an independent international investigation into the “atrocity.”

The air campaign and ground fighting have killed over 4,000 civilians and wounded 7,000, and a coalition blockade has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine. Since the beginning of the coalition’s intervention, rights groups have documented bombings that struck weddings, markets, schools, and hospitals.

HRW has called on the US and Britain to suspend their billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The US faces pressure to drop support such as intelligence and air refueling for the coalition.

Rights groups have accused the US of being complicit in the destruction and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, causing the White House to announce that it would review its support for the Saudi-led coalition. In the wake of the funeral hall bombing, a US official publicly warned that the United States had not sent Saudi Arabia “a blank check.”

The Houthis, who ally with troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, overran Sanaa in 2015, forcing out Saudi Arabia’s preferred leader, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi. The mostly Sunni Muslim Saudi-led military coalition began attacking the rebels in March 2015, accusing the Houthis of serving as proxies for Shiite-led Iran.

 Red alert: Prepare for severe stock market crash, warns HSBC

October 13, 2016


The technical analysis team at HSBC is warning recent stock market moves look eerily similar to just before 1987’s ‘Black Monday’, which saw the largest one-day market crash in history.

On October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average which comprises the 30 large US publicly traded companies, lost 22.6 percent of its value.

In a note to clients released Wednesday, Murray Gunn, the head of technical analysis for HSBC, said he was on red alert for an imminent sell-off in stocks in the light of the price action over the past few weeks.

“With the US stock market selling off aggressively on October 11, we now issue a RED ALERT. The possibility of a severe fall in the stock market is now very high,” Gunn wrote.

Other financial firms have also issued red alert warnings. Citigroup told clients that investors aren’t adequately hedging US election risk. The managing director at Citi Thomas Fitzpatrick has also pointed at the market’s similarities to the 1987 crash.

The volatility has continued to rise since the end of the summer and the recent sell-off was seen across many areas of the market, and not just selected groups, according to the HSBC analyst.

Last month, Gunn warned stocks were under an “orange alert.” Following the Dow Jones’ 200-point decline on Tuesday, Gunn threw up the ultimate warning signal, saying the drop is here.

The key levels that HSBC team is watching are 17,992 in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and 2,116 in the S&P 500.

“As long as those levels remain intact, the bulls still have a slight hope. But should those levels break and the markets close below, which now seems more likely, it would be a clear sign that the bears have taken over and are starting to feast,” Gunn said.

The possibility of a severe fall in the stock market is now very high,” he added.

Wall Street stocks closed slightly higher on Wednesday – the Dow rose 15.54 points, or 0.09 percent, to 18,144.2. The S&P 500 gained 2.45 points, or 0.11 percent, to 2,139.18.

In its technical analysis the HSBC team uses the Elliott Wave Principle which tracks alternating patterns in the stock market to discern investor behavior and possible next moves.


World’s billionaires lose £215m each as global economy struggles

Study finds billionaire population grew in 2015, but total wealth of this group fell by nearly £250bn as economic growth stalled

October 13, 2016

by Rupert Jones

The Guardian

The world’s billionaires saw their wealth shrink by an average of £215m each last year, as economic headwinds made themselves felt.

A report published on Thursday by UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that falling commodity prices helped put billionaires under pressure at a time of stalling growth in technology and finance, the motors of wealth creation.

The study’s authors found that Asia is creating a new billionaire every three days, but the US billionaire population only grew by five in 2015. Europe’s wealthiest individuals were proving the most resilient, the report said.

In 2015, the global billionaire population effectively increased by 50 to 1,397, according to the study, but the total wealth of these individuals fell by $300bn (£246bn) from $5.4tn to $5.1tn, an average loss of £215m per person.

The study said 210 people became members of the billionaires’ club in 2015, more than half of whom were in Asia, where young entrepreneurs are rapidly becoming wealthy in sectors such as real estate, technology and retail.

At the same time, 160 people lost their billionaire status, including those who died. One-third of the billionaires covered by the study are aged over 70.

The authors said: “Great wealth creation lost some of its momentum in 2015 … It is too early to tell if the past 30 years’ extraordinary period of wealth creation is coming to an end, but it’s clearly slowing.”

A total of 113 Asian entrepreneurs attained billionaire status during the year, accounting for 54% of the global total in 2015.

The US is still home to the world’s largest collection of billionaires, but while 41 people there broke through the billion dollar ceiling in 2015, 36 dropped off the list. Total US billionaire wealth fell by 6% from $2.6tn to $2.4tn. “So the US is still creating a few new billionaires, but its billionaire wealth is flagging,” the report said.

Europe was “leading the world” in wealth preservation, the authors said, with multigenerational billionaires coming out of 2015 far better than their peers in other markets. “While it may not be the best at creating great wealth, Europe has proved the best at keeping it,” the report said.

The authors predicted that the biggest handover of wealth to the next generation was imminent. Researchers forecast that 460 billionaires will pass $2.1tn, the same as India’s GDP in 2015, on to the next generation over the coming 20 years.

The report does not name any billionaires, but according to Forbes, the Microsoft founder Bill Gates is the world’s richest man with a net worth of $82bn, followed by the Zara founder Amancio Ortega on $77bn. The Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is in fifth place with $55bn.

For the billionaires who struggled last year, the study said it expected the performance of the financial markets and economic growth “to create a favourable environment for billionaire wealth creation in 2016 and 2017”.

Clinton Email May Help Preserve Power to Sue Saudis for 9/11

October 12, 2016


A 2014 email released by Wikileaks, in which Hillary Clinton asserted that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar were directly aiding ISIS and other extremist groups, may help stave off a Saudi lobbying effort aimed at reversing a newly-enacted law giving 9/11 families the power to sue the kingdom.

The email, sent to Clinton presidential campaign chairman John Podesta, lays out an assessment of the situation in Syria and Iraq and includes various policy prescriptions.

One of them leveled a pointed indictment at Saudi Arabia: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” (ISIL is an abbreviation for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—an alternative reference for ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.)

As Daily Caller’s Alex Pfeiffer noted in breaking the story, the email’s format matches previously revealed intelligence reports prepared for Clinton by her confidante Sidney Blumenthal. Though it may have been drafted by Blumenthal, Clinton’s sharing of the material without attribution seemingly signals her embrace of its contents, including the damning assertion about Saudi Arabia.

This isn’t the first time Wikileaks has revealed a Clinton assertion of ties between Saudi Arabia and terrorism. In a 2009 cable, then-Secretary of State Clinton said “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

The newly-released email is particularly significant because, rather than vaguely implicating unidentified “donors” that may or may not include individual members of the royal family acting independently, it specifically points a finger of guilt at the Saudi government itself.

The email validates former Senator Bob Graham’s previous assertions that, by classifying Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government helped pave the way for the rise of ISIS.

“I believe that the failure to shine a full light on Saudi actions and particularly its involvement in 9/11 has contributed to the Saudi ability to continue to engage in actions that are damaging to the US—and in particular their support for ISIS,” Graham told Patrick Cockburn in a 2014 interview.

Strengthening the Case for JASTA

The Clinton email leak comes just a few weeks after the enactment of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in a way that enables 9/11 family members and victims to sue the Saudi government for its alleged financial and logistical support of the hijackers.

President Obama vetoed the bill and, though his veto was overwhelmingly overridden, JASTA supporters are bracing for a determined Saudi counterattack in the lame duck session of Congress. That counterattack will likely take the form of a new alteration of FSIA to reverse some or all of JASTA’s effect.

Though JASTA explicitly limits its scope to terrorism and only applies to governments, opponents—under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. intelligence community—are claiming JASTA will leave individual U.S. military service members vulnerable to lawsuits filed abroad if foreign governments modify their own sovereign immunity laws in reciprocation.

In a statement issued after Obama’s veto, attorneys for 9/11 families said “a reciprocal statute could not permit claims against individual U.S. officials, employees or military personnel, as JASTA prohibits such actions…the inescapable conclusion is that the president’s rationale for opposing JASTA has nothing to do with JASTA itself.”

What remains to be seen: Whether the revelation of Clinton’s assertion that Saudi Arabia was funding ISIS as late as 2014 will strengthen legislators’ resistance to pressure from a foreign government…and from an intelligence community that often appears to be more closely aligned with an oppressive Middle Eastern monarchy than with its own citizens.

Losing Face

How a Facial Recognition Mismatch Can Ruin Your Life

October 13, 2016

by Ava Kofman

The Intercept

It was just after sundown when a man knocked on Steve Talley’s door in south Denver. The man claimed to have hit Talley’s silver Jeep Cherokee and asked him to assess the damage. So Talley, wearing boxers and a tank top, went outside to take a look.

Seconds later, he was knocked to the pavement outside his house. Flash bang grenades detonated, temporarily blinding and deafening him. Three men dressed in black jackets, goggles, and helmets repeatedly hit him with batons and the butts of their guns. He remembers one of the men telling him, “So you like to fuck with my brothers in blue!” while another stood on his face and cracked two of his teeth. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he remembers shouting. “You guys are crazy.”

Talley was driven to a Denver detention center, where he was booked for two bank robberies — the first on May 14 and the second on September 5, 2014, 10 days before his arrest — and for assaulting an officer during the second robbery.

After surveillance camera images of the September robbery were publicly distributed, three of Talley’s acquaintances called in with tips to the police hotline, noting similarities between Talley’s appearance and the robber’s. A detective then showed photographs of both the May and September robber to Talley’s estranged ex-wife. “That is Steven,” she told him. “That is my ex-husband.”

The identifications justified Talley’s detention, even though he claimed he had been at work as a financial adviser for Transamerica Capital when the May robbery took place. Talley said he was held for nearly two months in a maximum security pod and was released only after his public defender obtained his employer’s surveillance records. In a time-stamped audio recording from 11:12 a.m. on the day of the May robbery, Talley could be heard at his desk trying to sell mutual funds to a potential client. Nine miles north, a white male wearing a black baseball cap, red athletic jacket, white shorts, and black sneakers entered a U.S. Bank, where he threatened the teller, hid $2,475 in his shirt, wrestled with an off-duty officer, and jumped down a flight of 10 stairs to the parking lot. At the same time as Talley was trying to close a deal, parking lot surveillance tapes show the robber tumbling with the officer, escaping his grip, and jogging away.

Talley was released in November, and the charges were apparently dropped. In the months that followed, a series of medical exams revealed that Talley had sustained several injuries on the night of his arrest, including a broken sternum, several broken teeth, four ruptured disks, blood clots in his right leg, nerve damage in his right ankle, and a possibly fractured penis. “I didn’t even know you could break a penis,” he told me.

But while voice recordings had exculpated Talley, an appeal to other, seemingly objective markers of his identity would soon be used to implicate him again. Nearly a year after his release from jail, Talley was arrested a second time on December 10, 2015, and charged with the aggravated bank robbery that had taken place the morning of September 5, 2014.

This time around, Denver prosecutors obtained what looked like damning forensic evidence of their own. The detective assigned to Talley’s case, Jeffery Hart, had requested that an FBI facial examiner manually compare stills from the banks’ grainy surveillance videos to several pictures of Talley — a tall, broad-shouldered white man with short blond hair, mild blue eyes, and a square jaw.

The FBI analysis concluded that Talley’s face did not match the May robber’s, but that he and the September robber shared multiple corresponding characteristics, including the shape of the head, chin, jaw line, mole marks, and ear features. “The questioned individual depicted” in the September images, the report concluded, “appears to be Talley.”

Except that it wasn’t. Again.

Steve Talley is hardly the first person to be arrested for the errors of a forensic evaluation. More than half of the exonerations analyzed by the Innocence Project have involved cases where forensic experts cited flawed or exaggerated evidence, and in 2009 a landmark paper by the National Academy of Sciences stated what many had long suspected: Apart from DNA testing, no other forensic method could reliably and consistently “demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

The report launched the forensic science community into a crisis of interpretation, with many questioning whether its methods should be deemed “sciences” at all. Last year, the FBI announced that virtually all of its hair analysis testimony had been scientifically indefensible, while the Texas Forensic Science Commission recently recommended banning bite-mark evidence from court. In September, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that firmly concluded that forensic techniques relying on visual patterns fell short of scientific standards and relied on the subjective opinions of law enforcement.

But while the accuracy of other visual, pattern-matching methods like blood-splatter analysis has been subject to vigorous public debate, the fallibility of facial comparison, or facial identification, has received less attention.

This may be because comparing facial images can seem like an easy or even intuitive task. “We assume, wrongly, that we are good at recognizing faces,” said David White, an Australian psychologist who researches facial perception. In reality, however, we are for the most part terrible at comparing photographs, video stills, and composite images of unfamiliar faces — and this remains the case even with high-quality, full frontal images.

The photographs of Talley and the suspects were sent to the FBI’s Forensic, Audio, Video and Image Analysis Unit, where trained forensic examiners manually compare points of similarity between faces to help investigators confirm or eliminate the identities of potential suspects. After selecting frames from the video, they work back and forth between evidence from the crime scene and images of their suspect to develop a conclusion regarding the type and number of similarities.

While the FBI has been comparing facial images since at least the 1950s, FAVIAU was formed in 2000 to merge video and analysis units spread across the agency into a main office in Quantico, Virginia. Examiners there compare not only faces but also the voices and heights of suspects submitted by law enforcement for terrorism, homicide, armed robbery, and financial fraud cases, among others. As of 2012, the FBI unit had around five employees comparing faces, all of whom had undergone a two-year training program, but according to a source familiar with the agency’s workings, the unit has since expanded. The methods used by the FBI and other independent examiners typically follow the ACE VR method — which stipulates that examiners analyze, compare, and evaluate the (known) images from the crime scene and the images in question. They then verify and peer review the analysis.

But even this method — undertaken in ideal conditions — remains vulnerable. No threshold currently exists for the number of points of similarity necessary to constitute a match. Even when agencies like the FBI do institute classification guidelines, subjective comparisons have been shown to differ greatly from examiner to examiner. And the appearance of differences, or similarities, between faces can often depend on photographic conditions outside of the examiner’s control, such as perspective, lighting, image quality, and camera angle. Given these contingencies, most analysts do not ultimately provide a judgment as to the identity of the face in question, only as to whether the features that appear to be present are actually there.

“You step back and let the argument be made by the prosecutor,” explained Grant Fredericks, a video analyst who teaches widely and has worked with the Texas Forensic Science Commission. “It is dangerous for a video examiner to tell the court that the person on video is the defendant. If it were that easy, there would be little need for trials in a surveillance society and that’s a frightening thought.”

“As an analytical scientist, whenever someone gives me absolute certainty, my red flag goes up,” said Jason Latham, who worked as a biochemist prior to becoming a forensic scientist and certified video examiner. “When I came from analytical sciences to forensic sciences, I was like some of these guys are not scientists. They are voodoo witchcraft.”

Forensic reports generally provide few details about the methods they use to arrive at points of similarity. But in Talley’s case, the FBI examiner’s report displayed a high degree of certainty. George Reis, a facial examiner who has testified more than 50 times for state, federal, and military courts throughout the country on forensic visual comparisons, pointed out that the report on Talley’s case was vague. “It is generally considered best practice to be specific in reports and to point out features of similarity, as well as differences, in any comparison illustration or chart,” Reis noted. “In the Talley case no such markings exist. The video frames that were used in the FBI illustration were of poor quality and limited value.”

In 2009, following the National Academy of Sciences’ call for stricter scientific standards to underpin forensic techniques, the FBI formed the Facial Identification Scientific Working Group to recommend uniform standards and best practices for the subjective practice of facial comparison. But the working group’s mission soon ran up against an objective difficulty: Like some other forensic sciences, facial comparison lacks a statistical basis from which its conclusions may be drawn.

This is, in part, because no one knows the probability of a given feature’s distinctiveness. As a FAVIAU slide on the “Individualization of People from Images” explained, “Lack of statistics means: conclusions are ultimately opinion-based.” To remedy this flaw, a 2008 FBI report recommended that the agency undertake research to quantify the frequency of facial features. But such efforts, which have been underway since at least the late 19th century, have so far proved inconclusive.

“What is similar enough? Nobody can tell you. It’s in the eye of the beholder,” said Itiel Dror, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. “You need to know that if this person has a right nostril bigger than the left nostril, are the chances one out of a million or is it every second person?”

What this means, in practice, is that the likelihood that two different images are of the same person can only be expressed as a subjective estimate. Unlike DNA analysis, the relative certainty of an examiner’s conclusions is determined by the person performing the analysis.

“The examiner must also judge how likely they would be to observe a given feature in the same person, relative to observing [it] in two different people,” explained White. “And one problem I see is that the statistics necessary to make that judgment objectively aren’t available and who knows if they ever will be.”

In the past decade, studies have shown that irrelevant or contextual information about a case can influence a forensic examiner’s conclusions. When people are shown two faces and told they are related, they are more likely to describe them as similar even when the hereditary context is fabricated. And the more ambiguous the quality of the evidence, the more likely such contextual information will influence the expert’s conclusions, according to Dror, who has advised forensic agencies internationally on how to reduce bias. In the case of faces, the FBI’s facial identification working group has acknowledged that “the lower the quality of the image being used in a comparison, the weaker the conclusion that can be drawn.” But in many investigations, where images are collected from surveillance videos without the suspect’s consent, poor quality is unavoidable.

Several forensic experts I consulted noted that the images produced in Talley’s case from both banks’ CCTV footage were subpar, at best. In the stills taken from the banks’ cameras, the suspect’s pose differs significantly and the images, even with enhancement, are blurry. In both Denver robberies, the suspects are captured from a high angle, wearing baseball caps. The September suspect also wears sunglasses — occluding the shape of the head and ears and greatly reducing the viability of the images, according to several examiners.

Varied illumination also presents a challenge to the accuracy of both manual and automated facial comparisons — so much so that changing the illumination can be more misleading than substituting an entirely different face. But the most intractable problem posed by video evidence is compression. Compressing video images into a usable size often results in the removal, corruption, or distortion of the very skin, vein, and mole patterns that examiners use to individuate subjects. Facial marks like freckles or moles are considered to be some of the best candidates for individuation, but they are also the most vulnerable to erasure and distortion when recorded by CCTV. When CCTV systems compress video data, they generate ambiguous dark or light spots on the image; at other times, compression algorithms will generate spots even in the absence of a mole.

Such ambiguity leaves room for suggestive interpretation on the part of experts testifying for both the defense and the prosecution. The FBI examiner relied on four points of similarity between Talley and the September robber in the comparison chart accompanying his report — two of which suggested the presence of moles on the robber’s face. But at the preliminary hearing, Talley’s defense attorney Benjamin Hartford pointed out that the robber caught on camera appeared to lack the distinctive mole Talley has on his right cheek. “If they missed a mole on a guy’s face,” he later told The Intercept, “I don’t know how anyone can trust this.” Detective Hart conceded in his testimony that Talley’s mole was not visible in the images shown of the suspect’s face. At the same time, he explained that the resolution was inevitably lower in the surveillance images, which could affect the visibility of key those details.

In his classes on video analysis, where students have included FAVIAU examiners, Grant Fredericks has advised that examiners verify that marks in the same location appear across multiple images in order to avoid mistaking an artifact or shadow from the video processing for the presence, or absence, of a mole. “I’ve identified moles but only when they’re on multiple images and move with the body,” he said, noting that persistent shadows sometimes get mistaken for moles.

Talley’s case is not alone in raising questions about the reliability of forensic facial identification. In U.K. courts, several cases have unfolded in which expert witnesses using the same techniques came to different opinions on the stand, leading judges to request further research into identification from CCTV footage.

Glenn Porter, a facial comparison expert and researcher who has testified in Australian courts for both the prosecution and the defense, has published extensively on the unreliability of facial identification — especially with CCTV images. His studies have faulted examiners for misunderstanding photographic evidence, deploying highly subjective unstandardized methods, and lacking clear validation. These problems, he writes, “may result in evidence derived from CCTV or other photographic sources being misrepresented, exaggerated or erroneous. …. This situation presents a serious risk of misidentification of persons of interest, which can lead to wrongful convictions.”

“The fact that somebody might look the same on video means nothing,” Fredericks cautioned. “It means nothing. There has to be more consistency.”

The FBI declined to comment on the Talley case specifically or to answer any general questions about FAVIAU’s methods.

At the same time as Detective Jeffrey Hart was working to rebuild the case against Talley, Talley was attempting to rebuild his life. He hadn’t paid rent during his two months in jail, so he was living in homeless shelters. The money he had saved was gone.

Potential employers in the financial industry would express interest in Talley’s application only to rescind offers after conducting a background check. “The charges could not have been worse,” Talley said. Despite a résumé that listed his former positions as a financial consultant and analyst for E-Trade, Curian Capital, and Morgan Stanley, he could not find work. “I think if I had been charged with murder, it would have been easier than being a serial bank robber, because in terms of handling money and being in the financial industry, the fiduciary trust is totally broken.”

Following his release from jail after his first arrest, Talley filed a series of complaints with the Denver Police Department’s internal affairs bureau, seeking justice for what he alleged was a pattern of misconduct and mistreatment. Some of Talley’s complaints against the department appear to be unsubstantiated. His emails to the department were angry and accusatory — deploying multiple fonts, colors, and styles. He left several belligerent voicemails and was often agitated on calls with officers. “You guys are the dumbest cops in the world,” he remembers telling Hart. In a complaint filed in May 2015, he wrote: “I still have not received a single apology from them for the hell they put both me and my family through. I still continue to suffer from the injuries and the consequences of their actions.” Whatever apology Talley was seeking, however, was not forthcoming. Instead, he says he felt “constantly threatened by the Denver police.” On one phone call, Talley recalls Hart telling him, “I’m going to throw your ass back in jail, we’re going to refile.” Hart testified in court that the calls were “contentious” but denied making any threats.

The internal affairs bureau, for its part, investigated and dismissed many of Talley’s claims, but it did confirm three critical allegations.

The first: An after-action report from the Denver Police Department states that the city’s SWAT team saw Talley as an escape risk and notes explicitly that agents used two Noise Flash Diversionary Devices, also known as flashbang grenades, during his arrest. The internal affairs bureau also confirmed that investigators ran a fingerprint left by the May robbery suspect against Talley’s fingerprints — which the police had on file from his job and from two prior DUIs. There was no match between the prints, but Talley was still kept in custody.

Most important, however, were Talley’s allegations concerning the identification process. Talley filed a complaint with the Office of the Independent Monitor, charging that Hart did not follow a standard blind procedure when he personally presented the six-person photographic lineup to Bonita Shipp, the teller who had worked at the September bank. At that time, Shipp identified Talley with 85 percent certainty as the man who had robbed her. Other than Shipp, no other personnel from either bank identified Talley in a line-up.

After noting that allegations against officers “must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence,” the bureau determined that Hart’s decision to show the lineup to Shipp himself, rather than through a blind investigator, was “improper” and not what was “expected of a Denver police officer.” Shipp said that Hart told her he had already arrested Talley when he pointed to him in the lineup. Hart was disciplined and a written note about the misconduct was added to his permanent file by internal affairs.

In between filing complaints and medical visits, Talley was having a rough time. He had a series of run-ins with law enforcement where he was charged with trespassing, disturbing the peace, attempting to influence a public servant, and loitering — charges that he attributed, in part, to the fact that he was now homeless. But when we spoke about his various charges, he could be quick to claim an implausible amount of blamelessness. Trying to get his suits back from the home where he once lived, for instance, he was caught by witnesses kicking down a fence —actions that he later described in milder terms.

In seeking redress for his injuries, Talley was quick-tempered and easily frustrated by what he repeatedly referred to as the “gross incompetence” of the police department. But in TV interviews about his case with local news media, he told his story with calm, considerate eloquence.

It was through this latter route that his story eventually reached Maureen Cain, a program director for the Colorado Criminal Defense Institute who had been looking for local cases of mistaken identity. Cain was working with the Innocence Project to develop best practices for suspect identifications across the country.

“His story was so painful because he was going through a hard time in his life to begin with and you put this arrest on top of it, which was so wrong. It really makes you question our justice system in a fundamental way and you start to think of how many other people suffer like Mr. Talley because of bad identification,” Cain told me. “You think every day they are going to figure out this mistake and they don’t.”

In March 2015, Cain got in touch with Talley to see if he wanted to be part of an effort to legislate that police departments draft and follow written procedures for eyewitness identifications and lineups. Talley agreed to help and later that month, he told the story of his arrest before the House Judiciary Committee. “He came across kind of as a common man,” Cain recalled of his testimony. “And his life was upended so drastically.” Half an hour later, the bill passed the house unanimously.

Cain connected Talley with a pro bono clinic to help people remove arrests without convictions from their records. Talley hoped that clearing his charges by the end of 2015 would make him less of a “persona non grata” to potential employers. Time was of the essence: His financial licenses were set to expire several months later.

Which is why the timing of his second arrest in December 2015 could not have been worse. It made the expungement process that was underway impossible. At best, Talley would now lose his financial licenses. At worst, he would be convicted for a robbery he did not commit.

The preliminary hearing in January, charging Talley with the September robbery, did not go as the prosecution planned. First there was the matter of the analysis of his cellphone — which inconclusively showed two calls during and just after the robbery in the area of both his home and the U.S. Bank. But Talley lived directly around the corner, less than .1 miles away as the crow flies, from the bank he had allegedly robbed. He testified that he missed the first phone call registered by the tower because he had left his phone at home to charge while he was driving to a church food bank to pick up groceries. A sign-up sheet maintained by the food bank shows that a volunteer checked in Talley on September 5, 2014, but it does not specify his exact time of arrival.

The forensic facial comparison analysis was the other piece of new evidence, but its conclusions were still bound up in the complications of Talley’s first arrest: Investigators had originally arrested Talley based on the premise that the robberies were committed by the same person; the facial comparison now stated otherwise, pinning him as the suspect in the second robbery exclusively. Benjamin Hartford, Talley’s lawyer during the case, believed investigators used the forensic analysis to conveniently cover for “the egg on their face” and that the robberies were, in fact, committed by the same stranger.

The FBI’s facial analysis was further called into question in court, when the prosecution’s star witness directly contradicted its conclusions. When Bonita Shipp — the sole witness to the September 5 robbery, who had previously identified Talley based on Hart’s photographic line-up — took the stand, she testified that Talley was not the same man who threatened her and robbed her station.

Shipp and other tellers at the bank had been required to undergo suspect recognition as part of their training. According to the internal bank form tellers fill out after each robbery, Shipp originally described the suspect as 6 feet, 175 pounds, with a slender build. But the man who stood before her, she noted, did not fit this description. Talley stood just under 6 feet 4 inches and weighed between 230 and 250 pounds. He did not, in her opinion, appear to be a slender man.

It wasn’t just Talley’s weight or height that eliminated him, but also his teeth. Shipp recalled that the robber’s teeth were not visible even when he grinned. And in the cross-examination with the prosecutor, Shipp said that she had not previously told anybody about the robber’s hands. “When he reached his hands over the counter,” she told the DA, “I could see through his surgical gloves, and I could — he had like marks on his hands.”

The markings were moles and freckles, which she believed she would recognize if presented again with the robber’s hands. At the hearing, Talley offered to show Shipp his hands, and she examined them. “It’s not him,” she told the courtroom. “It’s not the guy who robbed me.” The prosecutor, Shipp recalled, went slack-jawed.

Shipp later told me that the most remarkable thing about the robber was that his face was completely unremarkable. “I immediately kept trying to identify him but this guy had no moles, no tattoos, his complexion was very clear,” she recalled. “I kept looking at his nose. He had a perfect nose: It wasn’t long, it wasn’t wide, he didn’t have big nostrils. Mr. Talley was a lot taller. And Mr. Talley has a horrible nose — no offense to him — but he has a long hunky nose, and he has a mole in the side of his face.” A mole, she explained, that was missing from the September robber. It was only the sun spots on his hands that distinguished him.

When asked about her initial identification of Talley, Shipp said she had examined Hart’s photographic lineup for a few minutes at the bank, during her workday. “It looked a lot like him. I’ll have to admit that. There were a lot of things that looked like him,” she said, adding that she had told detective at the time she would have preferred to see the suspect in person. When she did see Mr. Talley in court, any doubts left her mind. “Mr. Talley had big broad shoulders and the robber didn’t,” she told me. “He was just a medium-sized guy.”

After Shipp’s testimony, the judge concluded that it was “unlikely” prosecutors would convict Talley. And yet his case remained open.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office released a statement after the preliminary hearing explaining Shipp’s testimony “was a surprise to the prosecutor. … She will now have to assess the case in light of our burden of proof.”

Further proof was not forthcoming. In March, at a second preliminary hearing, FAVIAU examiners compared Talley’s height to that of the September robber and concluded that they differed by three inches. In April, the prosecution announced that they would be dismissing the case against Talley. But in July, before he could resume and complete his expungement process, his financial licenses expired. By then, he had been out of work for more than a year.

Two years after the night that began his ordeal, Talley sued the Denver Police Department, the FBI (which participated in the joint Safe Streets Task Force that arrested him), and the city of Denver on September 14, 2016. “It’s been very stressful. I’ve been somewhat relieved that it’s been finally filed. However, all the media and with the addition of the anniversary date of event has brought me recent ‘flashbacks’ of the incident,” Talley wrote me a few weeks ago. He is seeking $10 million in damages.

In response to a series of questions about the lawsuit’s allegations of police brutality, Hart’s investigation, and departmental corruption, the Denver Police Department declined to comment, stating that “it would be inappropriate to comment on a pending lawsuit out of respect for the legal process. Upon conclusion of the legal proceedings, the department will gladly address any public concerns regarding this matter.”

It’s not that forensic face analysts are unaware of the pitfalls of their practice. But as expert witnesses with dubious qualifications are often admitted by judges, policing the field’s professionalism often falls to the analysts themselves. Forensic video analyst George Reis, who has been practicing in the field for three decades, recalled working on several cases where the evidence used by another expert to make a positive identification was inadequate and even one case where the expert was not an analyst at all but a plastic surgeon.

The FBI and professional associations like the International Association for Identification and the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association offer training programs for experts, but such certification is not required to testify in court. “In this field there are a lot of people who practice with absolutely no background or experience or training and have no idea what the necessary conditions for individualization are,” Reis said. When untrained or inexperienced examiners make egregious mistakes, he added, it reflects badly on the field.

While the practice of comparing faces depends on a combination of innate skill and trained expertise, few studies have actually tested the accuracy of trained experts. One study that did test experts found that passport officers performed the same as untrained students — that is, very poorly — even in recognition scenarios that resembled their jobs. Another study, conducted as a response to the National Academy of Sciences report, determined that highly trained members of the FBI’s forensics working group were more accurate on average than untrained counterparts — achieving an average misclassification rate of about 7 percent. But exactly how one achieves greater perceptual expertise is largely unknown.

Scientists have only recently discovered that facial recognition ability exists along a spectrum. Just as there are people who are completely face blind, there are also individuals who wield exceptional, preternatural skill in recognizing faces. The London Metropolitan Police has administered tests to form a selective bureau of officers, the first of its kind, filled with these “super-recognizers.” Many super-recognizers display higher accuracy with images in varied conditions than even the most refined algorithms, and David White, the Australian scientist, has worked with several of them to gain insights into the nature of human recognition abilities. But it’s unclear if other departments will follow the Met’s lead in testing and trusting them.

The forensic comparison and video analysts who spoke with me emphasized the steps they took to guard against bias: limiting their knowledge of the case to only the relevant evidence at hand, securing the original format of the video, admitting when the evidence was insufficient.

“Bias can lead to error if you think you know the right answer and are supposed to know the right answer,” Jason Latham explained. He said that his clients sometimes get frustrated because he avoids hearing prejudicial information before conducting his analysis. In 2015 the National Commission on Forensic Science dictated that fingerprint analysts be provided with only the information necessary to their analysis, but such steps have only taken the form of recommendations for facial examiners. Meanwhile, the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science started work last year to update the Facial Identification Scientific Working Group guidelines and standards. The updated documents have not yet been released.

Given the problems inherent in facial image comparison, replacing human judgments with computer calculations would seem like an obvious solution to avoiding the problems of Talley’s case. Unlike manual facial comparisons, automated facial recognition systems deploy algorithms to search across a database of faces, which are then ranked based on the probability of a correct match. According to a Government Office of Accountability report published in May, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division has spent about $55 million on developing face recognition systems since 2010. In addition to signing agreements to access the FBI’s systems, several dozen police departments across the U.S. have started to roll out automated face recognition systems of their own.

The ascendancy of computer recognition for broad queries is all but inevitable: Algorithms can search millions of faces in seconds — a task that would otherwise take multiple humans multiple lifetimes. And while image quality still presents the same challenges for computers as it does for humans, many algorithmic face recognition systems surpass human performance for images with regular lighting and standardized poses.

“Typically, the forensics community relied on experts in a binary way: Is this the same guy or not the same guy?” Akil N. Jain, one of the world’s leading pioneers of face recognition technology, explained in an interview. “The focus has shifted to ‘How can you be so sure? Give us some confidence level.’ The forensic community needs to accept that examiners can make mistakes, and they need to say, ‘How can we avoid that?’” As empirical data supporting forensic opinions are scarce, he hopes that data analysis by large computer systems will support the development of probabilistic conclusions for courtrooms.

But experts warn that the same flawed system that sent Talley to jail will not disappear with the advent of automated recognition. If anything, these flaws may be exacerbated. The reason is practical: The conclusions of any automated system ultimately depend on the judgments of human reviewers to evaluate and verify that the correct subject is present in the computer’s list of possible matches.

“There has been very little consideration of that part of the process,” said White. “And even in reports on the reliability of these systems, it’s very much focused on reliability of the algorithm. But once the algorithm has generated a set of possible matches, a human must adjudicate. And we know that the average human is very bad at this.”

As a 2014 paper by the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded, “The accuracy with which human reviewers can reliably adjudicate the most-similar faces returned in a large-population one-to-many search remains poorly quantified.” When it was quantified, in a study the next year, White and his co-authors recommended halving the accuracy rates reported by other algorithmic testing. Humans made errors in one out of every two candidate lists.

Such a drastic re-evaluation of the accuracy of current systems would spell bad news for the FBI’s digital systems, which, according to the most recent numbers available, provide a correct match 85 percent of the time. The agency’s face recognition software has access to 411 million images as part of its Next Generation Identification system, a decadelong effort to build the world’s largest database of human identifiers. State, local, and federal law enforcement agencies can search the faces in the database for a range of cases — from DMV fraud to missing persons to immigrations claims. And as researchers have repeatedly shown, the potential for false matches only increases with the size of the dataset: The more faces there are to search, the more prone they are to appear similar and be mistaken for one another. Human examiners are currently not required to adopt a higher threshold of similarity to justify their decisions when looking at candidate lists — even when the likelihood of such similarities increases.

The automated ranking of candidates may also subtly bias examiners, as a study with fingerprint examiners working with automated systems has shown. Itiel Dror has recommended agencies consider randomizing the candidate lists so that examiners will not be biased when comparing faces ranked at the top of the list.

Despite these concerns about accuracy, official standards for human-computer collaborations have yet to be developed. Nicole Spaun, a former FBI image examiner who has published several leading studies on forensic facial identification, has been surprised by how many police departments have installed face recognition systems without also instituting the proper training to go along with them. To this end, Spaun is currently working at MorphoTrak, a biometrics vendor, to develop training so that the users of any computer system are a priority rather than an “afterthought.”

“There’s a lot of people being thrown at face recognition systems who may know how to use a camera but don’t know anything about the science of imaging,” she explained. While the temptation to make a definitive identification is strong, Spaun says that most of her courses involve explaining to people that certainty is rare. “Looking at my own driver’s license photo I barely see the moles that I know are there,” she said. “What I find myself saying to a lot of people is, ‘No you’re not going to be able to positively identify a person.’”

According to an FBI spokesperson, FAVIAU does not plan to replace humans with automated facial recognition searching, but it may use systems to locate “better potential candidate matches than the current subject of the examination, which could provide support for eliminating the current subject from consideration.”

But even with automated facial recognition technology in place, false matches will, according to Jain, continue to be “a valid concern.” “Biometrics systems can make errors so we should be open to someone complaining that they are put in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “The ‘fingerprints don’t lie’ attitude has to change. If someone is claiming that they have a perfect system, that attitude needs to be corrected.”

Jennifer Lynch, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who works on face recognition, is concerned that human biases may even exacerbate the errors of technology. The seemingly unassailable combination of human expertise and technology may create legal situations where the burden of proof shifts onto the defendant, she explained. False matches end up forcing citizens to prove that they aren’t who examiners (and, increasingly, their algorithmic partners) say they are. In other words, what happened to Steve Talley could happen to others again and again.

No responses yet

Leave a Reply