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We don’t know how protests are being surveilled. Here’s why that’s a problem



Demonstrators gather at the Lincoln Memorial during a protest against police brutality and racism on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Win McNamee

The public outcry over the death of George Floyd was sparked by cellphone footage of his brutal treatment by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. But as protesters took to the streets to push for justice and police reform in the days that followed, many began to worry about how the camera was being flipped onto them.

Some types of surveillance are more noticeable than others. Protesters have spotted drones flying overhead, for example, a tactic that the Customs and Border Patrol commissioner said was deployed to monitor public safety, not spy on citizens. But other types are less visible, like the body cameras worn by police or Stingrays, which are briefcase-sized devices that mimic cell towers to pick up on cell phone information. 

At first blush, it may not be obvious why activists should be concerned about whether they’re being surveilled while protesting. After all, smartphones are almost constantly sending signals about users’ locations and protesters and journalists actively document the events with photos and videos. 

But surveillance and facial recognition data can be connected to many other pieces of information by government agencies and marketers. With the right tools, that data can easily be matched to social media profiles, criminal histories and credit reports.

What exactly that data will be used for, no one really knows yet. Activists and privacy researchers say that’s the problem. 

“We don’t know what happens to the data, we don’t always know where it’s collected from,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color of Change, an organization that advocates for racial justice. “It’s actually scary to imagine how much of our data bodies are kind of within law enforcement systems and how that will be weaponized against us.”

That fear speaks to the deep-seeded distrust of law enforcement that’s grown in the black community after years of documented brutality. This week, activists have called to defund the police, a movement that aims to redirect a portion of funds allocated for police departments to alternative programs, like sending mental health professionals on wellness visits rather than police officers. Similar programs have been successfully launched around the country.

State and federal lawmakers have already begun to act on efforts to reform policing. A veto-proof majority of Minneapolis city council members said Monday they supported disbanding the current police force and starting from scratch. That same day, Democrats from both houses of Congress unveiled a sweeping police reform proposal that includes restrictions on the use of body cameras to surveil First Amendment speech or conduct real time facial recognition. It also sets out rules about how long that footage can be retained.

But the public still doesn’t know all of the tools at police departments’ disposal to monitor them. Rules about what they need to disclose vary, making it difficult for privacy researchers to understand the potential consequences.

Crowds gather for a Black Lives Matter rally in Washington Square Park on June 6, 2020 in New York.

Noam Galai | Getty Images

“If we don’t know what tools they have, we don’t know what rules we need and we don’t know what protections are missing,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). The group has worked to introduce legislation at the state and local level to inject more transparency into police surveillance tools. The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, for example, would require the New York Police Department to submit reports to the City Council, the mayor and the public about the surveillance tools they use and safeguards in place.

Within the past couple weeks, dozens of lawmakers requested information from several government agency heads — the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Customs and Border Enforcement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Defense — about how they are collecting information about the protests. In the meantime, researchers are stuck in limbo wondering how that data could be used.

“We will not know the full extent of surveillance being used on these protests for potentially months, if not years, if not decades,” said Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “If you look back in history, being nonviolent and not doing anything wrong isn’t any form of protection from persecution.”

How the data could be used

At the moment, researchers can only speculate on how data collected at protests might be used. Without regulation that requires transparency and limits on data sharing and retention, it’s up to individual agencies and tech suppliers to determine those boundaries.

The most immediate threat surveillance poses is its potential to chill speech. At a time when cellphone video helped expose the exact injustice protesters are fighting against, they also must be wary of being tracked. This forces activists to make a choice between bringing their smartphones for safety purposes or leaving them at home to prevent being tracked later on. Though there are some steps protesters can take to obscure the data their phones give out, nothing is entirely foolproof.

“I think there’s a serious risk of law enforcement engaging in fishing expeditions when there are these mass protests,” said Alan Butler, interim executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “The protesters, knowing that that is a realistic threat, then may be forced to either chill their speech by not going out and engaging in protests” or not bringing their cell phones to document them.

Protesters cross Morrison Bridge while rallying against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Portland, Oregon, U.S. June 3, 2020. Picture taken with a drone.

Terray Sylvester | Reuters

As for how government agencies and even commercial marketers will use the data collected from protests, it’s still unclear. Researchers say the data will likely be stored in a government database and perhaps lay dormant until a person is suspected of committing an unrelated crime. At that point, the person’s presence at the protest could make up one of several data points about their history.

Or, the data could be used to try to tie a specific group to the locations of the protest, hypothesized Samuel Woolley, who leads propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Already, several conservative leaders, including President Donald Trump, have tried to pin the violence that’s broken out at the mostly peaceful protests on members of the far-left “antifa” movement. But little evidence has been offered to support those claims

In 2019, an investigator for the Manhattan District Attorney revealed in testimony that law enforcement had used a “reverse location” or “geofence” search warrant to obtain information on a particular area where they believed antifa members were victims of an assault, The New York Times reported. Rather than ask for a warrant on a particular person, the investigator testified they had obtained a search warrant to obtain information from Google on users in that location. They’d also given images of the supposed members to a facial recognition company.

Though unsuccessful in identifying the alleged victims, the testimony makes clear that law enforcement is already getting used to using such tactics. And little regulation is stopping law enforcement from using them.

Tech companies take a stand

In the absence of regulation around location data privacy and facial recognition, some of the largest tech companies supplying these tools have taken a stand against their use in protests or law enforcement.

This week, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft all said they would suspend their supplier relationships with law enforcement for facial recognition technology, citing the lack of regulation on how the technology can be used. IBM said it was exiting the “general purpose” facial recognition business, but did not explicitly say whether or not it would provide its technology to law enforcement or governments. Amazon said it would place a one-year moratorium on the use of its tools by police and Microsoft said it would do so until an adequate national law “grounded in human rights” is in place governing its use, the company’s President Brad Smith said. 

Facial recognition technology has been shown to have significant flaws. The technology has been proven to misidentify people of color at greater rates than white people, opening up a dangerous potential for those groups to be falsely connected to crimes they did not commit.

Facial-recognition grid

Stegerphoto | Peter Arnold | Getty Images

Foursquare, a giant in location tracking whose technology underpins many consumer apps, has decided not to provide clients analytics on data from the recent protests, CEO David Shim told CNBC in a phone interview.

“It’s an incredible movement that’s occurring, but at the same time, we also don’t want to deliver analytics at a granular level that people could use for different purposes,” Shim said. “For us, it’s important to make sure that if a consumer’s opted in, that we’re also kind of maintaining that ‘Do No Harm’ tenet.”

Foursquare has an internal council that reviews different scenarios of how its data could be used. The council evaluates hypothetical scenarios as well as ad hoc circumstances as they come up, like what data they should share related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shim said that as the largest independent player in the location data market, “we have a duty to set the standard for the industry.” 

“As you kind of set the right tone across the industry, as you get consumers to understand that you’re taking this seriously, that this is a core tenet to your business, I think more people are open to sharing that information, especially if they understand what it’s being utilized for” he said, emphasizing that Foursquare aims to adhere to the “spirit” of its privacy agreements, rather than the “letter” of the law alone.

Still, Shim supports privacy legislation that would limit the types of data Foursquare could share with customers. Such proposals on the federal level hit roadblocks prior to the pandemic as Republicans and Democrats disagreed on whether states should be able to enforce their own privacy laws on top of the federal standard and if individuals should be able to sue over alleged violations.

“Federal regulation is important to have consistent rules across the board and to make sure that the players that are doing it in the right way are really able to grow while those that aren’t doing it in the right way have a light shone on them,” Shim said. “We are OK with that level of scrutiny.”

Public health surveillance

As protests are being surveilled, so is citizens’ health as the coronavirus pandemic persists. Those surveillance programs have generated their own pushback, though they are heralded by public health officials as key to an efficient response to the virus.

“We have two major competing crises in this country that both involve the government trying to address it with surveillance,” said EFF’s Maass.

Protesters’ heightened awareness of potential privacy violations could undermine digital contact tracing programs like the one developed by Apple and Google. The effort would minimize data collection and retention by only storing that data on a users’ device, but it would require users to turn on Bluetooth on their phones to keep track of others with whom they have sustained contact. If a contact were to get diagnosed with the virus, that person would be notified without disclosing who tested positive.

A man offers free masks to people during a protest against police brutality on June 6, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the 12th day of protests since George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.

Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images

But such programs only work if they have widespread adoption because they track other contacts who have also opted in. 

Woolley, the UT-Austin researcher, said he fears the use of contact tracing and other forms of tracking could lead to a “slippery slope” of normalizing surveillance.

“If people become more used to contact tracing, then they’re likely to become more used to surveillance in general,” Woolley said. Without clear safeguards and reporting, he said, researchers are concerned that surveillance could eventually be used for more ethically ambiguous or nefarious purposes.

Jacqueline Seitz, a staff attorney at the Legal Action Center who advocates for privacy rights for people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or with histories of substance use or involvement in the criminal justice system, said there are fewer protections on the books for public health data compared to other health matters like the ones she works on.

“The United States does not have a comprehensive consumer privacy protection law and so a lot of this will be happening in really gray areas where there [are] no privacy protections,” Seitz said of contact tracing efforts.

Collins-Dexter, of Color of Change, said she is concerned about how contact tracing efforts could seep into other forms of surveillance.

“What we’ve seen in this moment is that prior to the protest outbreak, there was a lot of kind of unleashing of new methodology and tools and surveillance that we’ve seen branded as the thing that we need to have to prevent further outbreaks of Covid-19,” she said. “And now, weeks later, we see that that same technology is what’s being weaponized for the purposes of surveillance. And so there’s a lot of different layers and concerns around the ways in which our data being collected through a number of vehicles, including and especially protests, are going to manifest in harms later on.”

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.

WATCH: How big data and contact tracing can help fight the coronavirus



Tide is making the first laundry detergent for space



Astronauts don’t have the luxury of tossing clothes in the hamper after a single use — without laundry equipment, they’re often left wearing items multiple times. Tide thinks it can come to the rescue, though. The Procter & Gamble brand has teamed with NASA to develop the first laundry detergent meant for space. The fully degradable detergent should take care of stains and odors while working properly in a closed-loop water system like the one you’d find aboard the International Space Station.

It won’t take long before you see a rea world (or rather, real off-world) trial run. NASA will test Tide’s detergent aboard the ISS in 2022. “Mission PGTide,” as it’s called, will gauge ingredient stability in space as well as the effectiveness of the stain removal ingredients using Tide’s pens and wipes.

Other studies will explore the possibility of a washer-dryer combo that could be use for long-term Moon and Mars missions.

The advantages for space are fairly self-evident. Those lunar and martian explorers won’t have any choice but to clean their clothes — this detergent could make that possible without subtracting from their precious water supply. It could also save weight and space aboard both the ISS and cargo capsules, as NASA wouldn’t need to send so many clothes into orbit.

 This could also be helpful for laundry back on Earth, for that matter. A fully degradable detergent would be more environmentally friendly, reducing waste and conserving water. Don’t be surprised if you eventually buy detergent that’s kind to the planet precisely because it’s designed to be used off-planet.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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Merlyn Mind emerges from stealth with $29M and a hardware and software solution to help teachers with tech



We’ve chronicled, in great detail, the many layers of technology, services and solutions, that have been wrapped around the world of education in recent years — and especially in the last year, which became a high watermark for digital learning tools because of Covid-19. Today, a startup called Merlyn Mind is coming out of stealth with a proposition that it believes helps tie a lot of this together in the K-12 classroom — a “digital assistant” that comes in the form of a piece of custom hardware and software to “read” natural voice and remote control commands from a teacher to control multimedia apps on a screen of choice. Along with this, Merlyn Mind is announcing $29 million in initial funding to build out its vision.

The funding is being led by specialist edtech investor Learn Capital, with other unnamed investors participating. It comes after Merlyn Mind spent about three years quietly building its first release and more recently piloting the service in 50+ classrooms in more than 20 schools.

Co-founded by longtime IBM scientists Satya Nitta (the CEO), Ravi Kokku, and Sharad Sundararajan — all of whom spent several years leading education efforts in IBM’s Watson AI research division — Merlyn Mind is coming to the market with a patented, vertically integrated solution to solve what Nitta told me in an interview he believes and has seen first-hand to be a fundamental pain point in the world of edtech.

In effect, education and technology may have now been merged into a single term as far as the tech world is concerned, but in terms of practical, on-the-ground application, many teachers are not making the most of the tools they have in the classroom. The majority are, he believes, facing “cognitive overload” (which is not to mention the kids, who themselves probably are facing the same: a problem for it to tackle down the road, I hope), and they need help.

To be fair, this problem existed before the pandemic, with research from McKinsey & Co. published in 2020 (and gathered earlier) finding that teachers were already spending more than half of their time on administrative tasks, not teaching or thinking about how and what to teach or what help specific students might need. Other research from Learn Platform found that teachers potentially have as many as 900 different applications that they can use in a classroom (in practice, Nitta told me a teacher will typically use between 20 and 30 applications, sites and tech services in a day, although even that is a huge amount).

Post-Covid-19, there are other kinds of new complications to grapple with on top of all that. Not only are many educators now playing catch-up because of the months spent learning at home (it’s been widely documented that in many cases, students have fallen behind), but overall, education is coming away from our year+ of remote learning with a much stronger mandate to use more tech from now on, not less.

The help that Merlyn Mind is proposing comes in the form of what the startup describes as an “AI hub.” This includes a personal assistant called Symphony Classroom, a kind of Alexa-style voice interface tailored to the educational environment and built on a fork of Android; a smart speaker that looks a bit like a soundbar; and a consumer-style remote that can be used also for navigation and commands.

These then work with whatever screen the teacher opts to use, whether it is a TV, or an interactive whiteboard, or something else; along with any other connected devices that are used in the classroom, to open and navigate through different apps, including various Google apps, NearPod, Newsela, and so on. (That could potentially also include kids’ individual screens if they are being used.)

The idea is that if a teacher is in the middle of a lesson on a specific topic and a question comes up that can best be answered by illustrating a concept through another app, a teacher can trigger the system to navigate to a new screen to find that information and instantly show it to the students. The system can also be used to find a teacher’s own materials on file. The demo I saw worked well enough, although I would love to see how an ordinary teacher — the kind they’re hoping will use this — would fare.

Everyone knows the expression “hardware is hard,” so it’s interesting to see Merlyn addressing its problem with a hardware-forward approach.

Nitta was very ready with his defense for this one:

“I’ll tell you why we built our own hardware,” he told me. “There’s a bunch of AI processing that’s happening on the device, for various reasons, including latency and security. So it’s kind of an edge AI appliance. And the second thing is the microphones. They are designed for the classroom environment, and we wanted to have complete control over the tooling of these microphones for the processing, for the environment, and that is very hard to do. If you are taking a third-party microphone array off the shelf, it’s impossible, actually, you simply cannot.”

The startup’s early team is rounded out with alums from the likes of HP Education, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Broadcom and Roku to help build all of this, knowing the challenges they were tackling, but also the payoff once it would be finished if it all works.

“We have a very, very talented team, and we basically said, right, this is going to be a lot of hard work that will take us three and a half years. We have to build our own piece of hardware… and we ended up building the entire voice stack from from scratch ourselves, too,” Nitta continued. “It means we have end to end control of everything from the hardware all the way to the language models.”

He did point out though that over time, there will be some elements that will be usable without all the hardware, in particular when a teacher may suddenly have to teach outside the classroom again in a remote learning environment.

It’s a very ambitious concept, but where would education and learning be if not for taking leaps once in a while? That’s where investors stand on the startup, too.

“Just as we saw with the breakthrough edtech company Coursera which reached IPO this year and was started a decade ago by two machine learning professors, in today’s hypercompetitive market the best edtech companies need to start with an advanced technological core,” said Rob Hutter, founder and managing partner of Learn Capital. “Merlyn is one of the first companies to focus on the enhancement of live teaching in classrooms, and it is developing a solution that is so intuitive it allows teachers to leverage technology with mastery while using minimal effort.  This is a very promising platform.”

The proof will be in how it gets adopted when it finally launches commercially later this year, with pricing to be announced later.

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Several Anker charging gizmos hit record low prices for Prime Day



All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

A slew of Anker charging gadgets are on sale for Prime Day, with several products dropping to the lowest prices we’ve seen for them to date. Take the Anker 63W 4 Port PIQ 3.0 & GaN Fast Charger Adapter, for example. It’s a slim charging hub with two USB-A ports and a pair of USB-C ports, allowing you to juice up four devices at once. One of the USB-C ports supports fast charging at up to 45W and the other at up to 18W. The adapter is currently on sale for $39, down $22 from the standard price of $61.

Buy Anker 63W 4 Port Fast Charger Adapter at Amazon – $39

Several powerbanks are on sale as well. The PowerCore III 10K Wireless has a 10,000mAh capacity, as the name suggests. The Qi-certified product can charge devices wirelessly at up to 10W, or up to 18W through the USB-A and USB-C ports. It’s currently $32, down from $50.

Buy Anker PowerCore III 10K Wireless at Amazon – $32

If you’re looking for a powerbank with slightly faster charging and a larger capacity, consider the PowerCore Essential 20000, which can provide up to five full battery charges to an iPhone 12, according to Anker. It has a 20W USB-C port, and it’s currently down from $50 to $35.

Buy Anker PowerCore Essential 20000 at Amazon – $35

Elsewhere, you can save on the Anker PowerCore 26800 Portable Charger, which usually costs $65, but is $40 for Prime Day. The external battery can juice up most phones at least six times on a single charge, Anker claims. It doesn’t have a USB-C port, but you can charge up to three devices at the same time through USB-A connections.

Buy Anker PowerCore 26800 at Amazon – $40

There’s a smaller discount on the PowerCore 10000, a compact 10000mAh powerbank. It’s down from $20 to $17. Anker has other products on sale for Prime Day, including headphones, earbuds and cables. You can check out all of the deals on the company’s Amazon storefront.

Buy Anker PowerCore 10000 at Amazon – $17

Get the latest Amazon Prime Day offers by visiting our deals homepage and following @EngadgetDeals on Twitter.

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How much to pay yourself as a SaaS founder



“If you’re the founder of a seed-stage [company and] you’re worried about your electricity staying on this month, then your salary is too low. If you’re saving $10,000/mo, then your salary is probably higher than necessary,” investor Leo Polovets wrote in a Twitter thread.

Ultimately, a good test is to ask how you’ll feel if your startup fails: Will you wonder if your salary contributed to its fall? Or will you regret sacrificing more than you can recover?

This tweet is just one of many in a now burgeoning conversation about how founder pay needs to change. The startup and investor communities are beginning to realize that many founders can’t go without pay for months.

Founders of SaaS startups are at an advantage in this scenario as the sector now has many companies generating revenue almost from day one, sometimes without needing to raise any funding at all.

However, the success still doesn’t tell founders how much to pay themselves, or what others are doing. To help with this, we’ve gathered insights from founders and VCs and narrowed down the most important factors and benchmarks to guide your decision.

A framework for compensation

Founder compensation is often referred to as a “founder salary,” but anchoring the conversation around the salary framework can create the wrong expectation. For example, you could try to establish a correlation between what you plan to pay yourself and your past or current value on the job market. Instead, the data we gathered indicates that founders typically take a pay cut from their previous salaries.

Chris Sosnowski is an interesting example: Before he “took the plunge” at the beginning of 2020 to work full time on his water data management startup Waterly, he used to earn “well over” $100,000. But he says his previous salary wasn’t a key factor when he set his compensation. “I decided to pay myself based on what I thought it would take to keep the company running,” he wrote to TechCrunch.

That brings to mind deferred compensation, which will be familiar to anyone who owns equity. Having put his own money into the company and owning the majority of it, Sosnowski is set to be compensated for his efforts if all goes well. “For the record, I do hope to pay myself back [a] salary for the year or so [it is] reduced like this,” he said.

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