October 24, 2014

Ground truthiness

New term of the week: ground truthiness (or it may be a word, groundtruthiness; I don't hear spaces well). It refers to what happens to a shiny, new technology when it moves from abstract theory and neat, clean lab demonstration into the messiness of the real world, where some people have two right thumbs or pendular nystagmus. In the wild, you find reality; you find the truth of what happens on the ground. You find its ground truthiness.

The ground truthiness of biometrics is particularly fragile. It's not just users that can confound things - as James L. Wayman said in 2003 ($), "People never have what you think they're going to have where you think they're going to have it." Bigger issues are the environment, the context of the system, and the needs and expectations of its owners.

The first kind of story is sometimes laughable: a facial recognition system built and marketed in Nigeria that does not work particularly well for dark faces. The second kind is why when you use the airport electronic gates you have to stand correctly on the yellow feet and look ahead so the lighting is right. The last two are the really complex ones.

On Tuesday, at the 2014 biometrics conference UCL researcher Itiel Dror explained that despite their neutral, objective sound, biometrics systems can be as unreliable as human memory. The work Dror described studying cognitive bias in forensics is the fingerprint analogue of the work done by Elizabeth Loftus demonstrating the vagaries of eyewitness testimony ($) and the bias that can be conveyed in police line-ups. After decades of vendor marketing, we tend to think of biometrics as clean, neutral, unimpeachable, and objective: if a fingerprint lying around the scene of a crime matches yours you'd better have a really good explanation. And yet...

The fact is that however neutral the scrap of data that represents a biometric may be, the system it's built into is designed and operated by humans. In one of the applications Dror studied, matching latent fingerprints collected at crime scenes with fingerprints stored in an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS), the system gives the examiner a list of possible matches, often 15, sometimes as many as 50. Just as Loftus found that eyewitnesses may be influenced by the police's ordering of a lineup, Dror discovered that the expert examining fingerprint matches is influenced by the ordering of the list and also by the context of what they've been told about the case - for example, knowing that the police considers a particular suspect guilty.

Experts in any field, Dror said, learn what elements they can safely ignore. If you know that most of the time the match is in the top few, you may well miss better matches appearing lower down. There are solutions to this, which he proposed. Randomizing the order is the most obvious (and, for similar reasons, is done in some jurisdictions with candidates' names on election ballots). Dror also suggested giving a prize for matches found lower down the list. However, both strategies slow the examiner's work. His compromise is to suggest giving shorter lists (the length to be determined by studying historical data and setting a threshold based on the number of desired hits) and randomizing the items.

"The success of biometrics systems depends on how well they are integrated into a larger cognitive context," he concluded.

In his paper, Dror suggests that this is a new problem that has been introduced by the creation of the giant AFIS databases: in earlier times there tended to be only a few suspects and those were selected based on other criteria than the probability of a biometric match. A similarly new problem, though different in kind, was introduced in India, said Nishant Shah, cofounder of the Centre for Internet and Society, who has been working with the Unique Identification Authority of India. Part of UDAI's goal is to help severely disenfranchised groups such as the homeless, nomadic workers, and asylum seekers. But, he said, "Some communities only survive because they are not counted." And there are other difficulties: village manual labourers do not have legible fingerprints, while in one southern village only the upper castes were registered. The reason: the enrolment equipment was set up on land owned by upper castes, to which the lower castes had no access.

Shortly afterwards, Alan Gelb, from the Center for Global Development, noted that the introduction of systems that tighten the link between identity and citizenship is increasing the number of formally stateless persons, currently estimated at 12 million worldwide. "The privacy gap has gotten a lot of attention," he said, "but there is very little on the risk of exclusion."

None of these problems is specifically about biometrics. But they are all about the difficulties inherent in trying to fit the fuzzy arrangements that humans make among themselves into tidy binary categories. It is a much more profound change than most vendors recognize - especially those like Jim Jasinski, senior vice-president for business development at Digital Signal, who repeatedly insisted that the technology his company sells is "just a conduit".


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


October 17, 2014

Uppity women

The best answer to bad speech is more speech. The best answer to trolls is not to feed them. The best answer to stupid sexist abuse promulgated by a small minority is a mix: report the death and rape threats, ignore the idiots, and tell the rest of the world why they're wrong.

When Suw Charman-Anderson founded Ada Lovelace Day as a blogging campaign, she said on Tuesday night at London's live celebration, she never expected it to spread as it has, with myriad events around the globe and even finding a footing in non-Anglophone cultures. Sampling his year's crop: the Telegraph, the Guardian - twice, the New York Times, and so many more. Two reruns: XKCD, and 2010's net.wars: Sung heroines.

The idea is simple enough: to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This year's London event, held at the Royal Institution, featured eight speakers showing off the fact that there is nothing about the female brain that is unsuited to any of the sciences. Speakers included Turi King, who uses genetics to answer questions in archeology and anthropology and discussed her work identifying the bones of Richard III; the physicist, oceanographer, and bubble scientist Helen Czerski; designer Steph Troeth; and the structural engineer Roma Agrawal, who spent six years designing the foundations and spire for the Shard, the tallest building in Europe.

The great thing about these talks is that they outlined knowledge and achievements that would be impressive and interesting whoever showcased them. The Skeptic in me especially appreciated Czerski's populist approach to showing how basic physics principles can be demonstrated with ordinary household items such as powdered laundry detergent, tonic water, and her skirt, yet appear in myriad phenomena at all scales. We forget, now that many big advances require expensive equipment and trained experts, that vast tranches of science can be discovered and inferred exactly as they were originally. All you need is curiosity and a willingness to investigate beyond typing search terms into Wikipedia, reading the first paragraph, and muttering "tl:dr".

If it were just one day a year, and the organizers had to scour the backwoods of science and technology to find the same old names popping up, Ada Lovelace Day would be a failure. That they *don't* have to do that shows how far we really have come. Although: clearly not far enough if the Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella can still say women shouldn't ask for raises. (His reasoning, by the way, was familiar to me from 1976, when a renowned middle-aged, British male folksinger informed me that I should not approach people for work but should stay home and practice, and when I was ready work would find me.) Nadella rapidly apologized and said he was "completely wrong"; CSMonitor has followed up with an analysis of the company's actual treatment of its female employees, who are 29 percent of the workforce (17 percent of technology).

Relatedly, on October 9, a special "digital women" edition of Teacamp drew dozens. At this event, speakers noted that training more women is important in solving the skills shortage employers complain about. It's true, and yet it's an argument we shouldn't have to make. It's even a little reminiscent of the world wars, when women staffed the factories while men were at the front - only to be sent home again when the men returned.

The rise of US period TV drama set in the 1940s (Manhattan and 1950s (Masters of Sex) is obviously at least partly attempts to copy the success of the 1960s portrayal, Mad Men (see also the failed, short-lived Pan Am and The Playboy Club). But I also have a theory that part of the appeal of these dramas is to people like watching women who aren't so...uppity.

One thing Mad Men has done exceptionally well is show the way sexism changed as women began penetrating the workplace in new, more substantial roles. The early - 1960, 1961 - sexism in the older generation's style was rather paternal (when they weren't actually screwing the secretaries): patronizing, limiting, dismissive, but veneered with politeness. The younger breed (such as Jay R. Ferguson's Stan Rizzo) arrive with a sneer: more overtly hostile and obnoxious. The contrast between the two is mirrored by the difference in response by the parallel generations of women, perfectly encapsulated by Peggy and Joan's elevator scene (Season 4, episode 8, "The Summer Man").

In many ways, Peggy and her real-life counterparts would have loved to have modern women's problems. To break the ground her generation did, they had to seem impervious to both paternalism and hostility while striving to get their abilities to be taken seriously without being damned as "pushy". They are probably grateful not to have faced revenge porn or the hunting packs of social media (though they did face the tabloids), and at conventions being ignored was a bigger issue than being harassed. One day soon a generation will look back on 2014 and wonder the fuss was about. Happy belated Ada Lovelace Day.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.