Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: Facial Recognition, Spies and Hair

Is the privacy cat out of the bag? A software developer previously known for an app that lets users don an image of Donald Trump’s hair over their faces is now widely known for touting a facial recognition software platform that has scraped 3 billion faces from social media. Clearview AI says it sells its program to law enforcement in various countries. The developer, who is supposedly an Aussie of Vietnamese decent (do we really know?) is reported to be partnered with a former aide to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. You cannot make this stuff up. Hoan Ton-That was interviewed by a New York Times reporter, Kashmir Hill, who provided a detailed and spooky account for its podcast, The Daily. It’s worth a listen. She relates how law enforcement officers she asked to look for herself in the Clearview AI database would go silent and how one told her that he was told not to discuss the results with her. In the interview, the founder says there was a glitch and shows her all the pictures. What was the point of pretending the software doesn’t do what it is designed to do? Just out of curiosity about the uniqueness of this facial recognition design, I took my Facebook profile picture and reverse image searched it on Google and came up with nothing except visually similar (also black & white) headshots of other people. But this software, as the NYT reporter noted, could possibly be used by a stranger passing you on the street, snapping a picture and then finding out, say, where you live, etc.

Speaking of spying, what if a company that sold encryption technology to governments for decades was actually the CIA using the equipment to gather sensitive information? Guess what? It happened, according to a special report by the Washington Post and a German publication, ZDF. The Swiss company, named Crypto AG, started during WWII and wound down in 2018 and its assets sold off. It was a joint venture with the German spy agency BND, which got out in the 1990s, according to the Post story. You may ask, whoa, is this story blowing a huge cover? Not really, because the company’s technology – which started with hand-cranked devices – became obsolete with the emergence of the type of encryption now ubiquitous in apps. My favorite part of this story is that the spy agencies brought in revenues selling rigged spy equipment to other governments to spy on them. That’s really quite impressive. Even one buyer of the assets expressed surprise and dismay. It’s a fascinating read with a glimpse into espionage history.

Well, that’s all hair raising. What’s that you say about hair? Yet another independent school district in Texas is coming under scrutiny for dress codes that require boys to keep their hair short. Surely, you know about the boy from Mont Belvieu who declined to cut his dreadlocks (he wasn’t the only at that high school told to comply with the dress code limit) and ended up on Ellen and at the Oscars celebrating the wonderful film Hair Love. Now, there is news about a boy in Poth, Texas, who was growing out his hair for Locks of Love after his sister became ill. Rather than cut his hair, he withdrew to be home schooled. While the call for someone to cut their dreadlocks certainly seems racist, these dress codes might just be equal opportunity boneheadedness (the family in Poth is white). It feels like something from the 1970s or part of the movie Footloose. Let your freak flag fly, people.

The Sage Leopard,