What’s up, What’s Next readers? This week, we’ll explore some heady new crossroads between law and tech. First up, a look at the ACLU’s calling out of Amazon and its facial recognition technology. Plus, legal actions underway to put a halt on downloading 3D printer blueprints for guns. And shifting gears: will legal services soon embrace the blockchain?
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Face Off: Amazon Tech Can’t Parse Congressmen from Crooks
Talk about a case of mistaken identity. Amazon’s facial recognition technology had 28 of them, mixing up lawmakers with alleged lawbreakers, according to a test carried out by the ACLU.
Taking Amazon’s “Rekognition” API to task, the ACLU scoured a database of 25,000 mugshots, then ran the facial recognition software on photos of members of Congress — employing the same settings as as Amazon’s own default settings. Among the 28 mismatches, Rekognition disproportionately botched the matching people of color. These results, ACLU attorney Jacob Snow writes, “demonstrate why Congress should join the ACLU in calling for a moratorium on law enforcement use of face surveillance.”
Facial recognition has certainly “lost face” in recent months, so to speak. Microsoft CEO Brad Smith called for greater government oversight of the technology, while Facebook has been battling class actions brought under Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act.
Congress itself has weighed in, with three Democratic senators issuing a letter to 39 federal law enforcement agencies last Friday regarding their use of facial recognition technology, Ars Technica reports. What’s more, CNET reports five of the lawmakers mismatched in the study sent a letter directly to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, expressing concern over Rekognition’s potential impact on “civil liberties, particularly in communities of color.”
Of course, the ACLU’s findings raised eyebrows at Amazon. The company’s general AI manager Matt Wood seemed to dismiss the study, noting that it deployed the Rekognition software at the default 80-percent confidence level setting. He added that Amazon believes this level is “far too low” to ensure “accurate identification of individuals,” specifically when it comes to law enforcement — for which he said the company recommends a 99 percent confidence level. In running a test similar to the ACLU’s, with a larger data set and at the 99 percent mark, the “misidentification rate dropped to zero,” Wood wrote.
Some might argue that Wood’s rebuttal misses some key points. My favorite criticism comes from Gizmodo’s Sidney Fussel, who writes that Amazon unwittingly made a “rock solid case” against giving Rekognition to law enforcement. “Conspicuously missing” from Wood’s writing, Fussel notes, was “a specific rebuttal to the enormous racial disparity uncovered by the ACLU.”
➤ Looking Ahead: Congress is increasingly being called upon to step into the contentious debate around using facial recognition technology. Even Wood suggested it would be “very reasonable” for the government to weigh in on how law enforcement should configure facial recognition tools. But is legislation coming? I would bet it takes a lawsuit first.
Image Credit: ACLU of Northern California
On the Radar: Three Things to Know
➤ Lawmakers Take Up Arms Against Downloadable Guns. Sound far fetched? It isn’t, thanks to 3D printers. In response to a June settlement with the State Department allowing a company to publish instructions for a 3D gun on its website, AGs from 8 states sued the Trump Administration to bring the operation to a halt. These aren’t the only people fired up at the prospect of click-button arms dealing: Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton Tweeted a bill he plans to introduce to ban 3D printed guns. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Pennsylvania and New Jerseyhave taken steps to ban the blueprints in their states.
➤ A Chance to Solve the Bitcoin Mystery? The murky origins of Bitcoin may yet be illuminated through an $11 billion lawsuit playing out in Florida’s Southern District.In question is the true identity of “Satoshi Nakamoto,” the enigmatic creator (or creators) of the cryptocurrency. In fact, defendant Craig Wright claims to be the elusive Nakamoto, though plaintiff Ira Kleiman says his brother, the late forensics expert Dave Kleiman, also was involved. If Kleiman’s stake in Bitcoin’s origins hold up in court, it could entitle his brother’s estate up to 1.1 million bitcoins (valued at $11 billion when the suit was brought, though now closer to $8.5 billion). But Wright’s team isn’t giving up without a fight. After rapid-fire motions and five months of heated arguments, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom must decide whether the suit will survive a motion to dismiss.
➤ Facebook’s Legal Fallout Continues. And on many fronts. The company’s week went into a freefall, so to speak, starting with its massive stock plunge. That resulted in a suit filed on behalf of a proposed class in New York’s Southern District comprised of folks that purchased stock in the beleaguered social media giant between October 1, 2017 and July 26, 2018. The plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that FB bigwigs “made materially false and misleading statements” regarding the company’s operations in the months leading up to the plunge, including its getting up to par with GDPR requirements. The buck doesn’t stop there—an investor filed suit in Delaware this week for access to board documents involving Facebook’s alleged mistreatment of user data. Plus, Facebook GC Colin Stretch is de-friending the company; he announced his planned departure later this year.
Network Effect: A Blockchain for Big Law?
It’s hard to escape the messaging these days that blockchain will change everything. But will it really change Big Law?
Baker & Hostetler and at least a handful of other firms seem to think so, with their announcement that they will participate in what’s called “The Agreements Network.”The smart contract platform aims to be the blockchain for legal services (think Ethereum for attorneys).
I figured I’d check in with Baker & Hostetler CIO Bob Craig to get a clearer sense of what’s behind the hype. Craig told me that right now, the firm is developing a “test legal agreements workflow in the automotive sector” as a way to see how clients and lawyers could benefit from using the Agreements Network.
There’s more: Craig explains that the firm is testing requirements for running a validator node — blockchain’s “thumbs up” for executing an agreement — on the platform, as well as tweaking use-cases for large corporations to employ in their supply chains. A notable example can be found in Wal Mart’s partnering with IBM for a blockchain to track the company’s food supply chain.
➤ Looking Ahead: Let’s be real — law loves to talk about blockchain. Just look at the roster of players in the Accord Project (Dentons, Linklaters, and DLA Piper to name a few). Yet that’s not to say no movement is happening. Accord has actually developed its own smart contract language and taken an open source approachto participation. Keep an eye on the space, for while it may sometimes seem like Big Law is all big talk, more firms are signing up.
That’s it for this week! Keep plugged in with What’s Next.