California

Should Police Facial Recognition Be Banned?

San Francisco is set to become the first city in the U.S. to ban police officers and other government officials from using facial recognition technology. Concerns about police using facial recognition are well-founded. Absent strong restrictions, police use of facial recognition poses a significant threat to our privacy and could hamper First Amendment-protected protests and other legal activities. Amid such concerns, it makes sense to keep the technology away from law enforcement until adequate policies have been implemented. While San Francisco officials ponder a ban we should consider if there are policies that could allow for police to use facial recognition without putting our civil liberties at risk or if the potential for abuse is so great that it warrants a ban.  

“Facial recognition” is a term that applies to a wide range of systems used to confirm identity via automated image analysis. While these systems have been much-discussed recently, facial recognition has been around for decades. Much of the recent focus on facial recognition is a function of its improved accuracy and proliferation. 

All over the world private businesses, law enforcement agencies, and national governments are using facial recognition systems. At its best, facial recognition can help improve security at banks and schools, help the blind, and make payments easier. But at its worst it’s an ideal tool for ubiquitous and persistent surveillance. In China, authorities use facial recognition to conduct surveillance and shame jaywalkers. This technology is a crucial part of one of the most extensive, intrusive, and oppressive surveillance apparatus in history, which the Chinese state uses to target the Uyghur Muslim minority in the western Xinjiang province. While there are many differences between the U.S. and China, we should keep in mind that when it comes to the degree of surveillance the differences between China and the U.S. are legal and regulatory rather than technological.  

American citizens and residents may enjoy more civil liberties protections than people living in China, but we should nonetheless be concerned about domestic law enforcement use of surveillance technology. After all, law enforcement agencies are already using facial recognition technology, and manufacturers have expressed interest in improving the technology in ways that could put civil liberties at risk.  

According to Grand View Research, we should expect law enforcement to spend more on facial recognition. In 2018, the size of the government “facial biometrics” market was $136.9 million and is expected to be $375 million in 2025.  

The scale of law enforcement’s current use of facial recognition is larger than many realize. According to Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology half of American adults are already in a law enforcement facial recognition network, and at least 26 states allow law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches against driver’s license and other ID photo databases.  

A Tale of Two Train Disasters

In 2004, Denver-area voters approved a sale tax increase to pay for “FasTracks,” a plan to build 119 miles of rail transit lines in the metropolitan area. In 2008, California voters approved the sale of bonds to pay for the construction of a 520-mile high-speed rail line between Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco/San Jose. FasTracks is within a metropolitan area and high-speed rail is supposed to connect several metropolitan areas, yet there are a lot of similarities between these two projects.

Both rely on technologies that were rendered obsolete years before they received voter approval. The agencies sponsoring both projects ignored early warning signals that the projects were not cost effective. Both had large cost overruns. Advocates of both lied to voters about the benefits and costs of the projects. Due to poor planning, both projects remain incomplete. Despite the failure of the projects to date, both have adherents who hope to complete them.

My 2004 paper, Great Rail Disasters, chronicled the failure of recent rail transit projects to significantly enhance transit or transportation in their regions. Since then, there have been several new disasters, but RTD’s FasTracks and California’s high-speed rail project are two of the biggest.

Obsolete Technologies

In 1927, the Twin Coach company designed the first bus that cost less to operate, as well as to buy, than any railcar. Within 10 years, more than 500 American cities replaced their rail transit lines with buses, and by 1974 only eight urban areas still had some form of rail transit. 

The Twin Coach Model 40 bus was first used in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Buses are not only less expensive, they have the added benefit of being able to move more people per hour than most rail lines in the same amount of land. A railcar may hold more people than a bus, but for safety reasons the frequency of trains is restricted to 20 to 30 per hour, while a dedicated bus lane can move several hundred buses per hour.

“Actual” for RTD means actual capacity based on the train lengths and frequencies used; for Istanbul it means actual ridership.

The Istanbul Metrobus, for example, has a theoretical capacity of 30,000 people per hour and actually moves up to 20,000 people per hour. The 32-mile line carries twice as many people per day as all of RTD’s buses and trains combined. The theoretical capacity of Denver’s light rail is 12,000 people per hour, and Denver’s commuter rail is less than 14,000 people per hour. Neither operate anywhere close to those numbers, so buses could have been a viable low-cost substitute.

Istanbul Metrobus dedicated lanes move as many as one bus every 14 seconds. Photo by Myrat.

Buses are also potentially faster. RTD’s one bus-rapid transit line averages speeds comparable to its commuter train and more than twice as fast as its light rail. Plus buses, unlike trains, can leave dedicated lanes and fan out to many destinations.

California’s High-Speed Train Has Done a Lot More Good for Big Consultants than for Taxpayers or Riders

The ongoing saga of California’s high-speed bullet train may end up being as classic a story of Democratic politicians’ hubris as the Solyndra debacle. The difference is that the bullet train is still going – well, not the train itself, but the taxpayer spending on the planning – despite some optimism earlier this year that Gov. Gavin Newsom was going to put the project out of its misery. A Los Angeles Times story last week by Ralph Vartabedian is a deep dive on the consulting companies that have been intimately involved in the whole process. Here’s the most revealing nugget:

The rail authority’s consultants are hardly household names, but they are politically powerful and made major contributions to support the 2008 political campaign for the bullet train bond. They have staffed their ranks with former high-level bureaucrats, and their former executives have occupied key government posts….

The consultants, however, have played a key role in the political success of the project. Along with labor unions, consultants helped fund the campaign for the $9-billion bond that is paying everybody’s salaries, including their own.

Engineering and construction firms contributed $837,000 to the bond campaign, second only to the $1.6 million spent by various unions, according to a Times review of campaign filings. WSP put $107,000 into the campaign. There was no organized opposition to the bond measure. It passed with 52.7% support, but its popularity has dropped in public opinion polls ever since.

The consultants continue to provide political muscle for the project. A revolving door provides lucrative job opportunities for state and federal officials to enter higher-paying private jobs.

The firms and the unions that expected to profit from building the rail line paid for the campaign to persuade voters to approve the bond issue that would commit taxpayers to the project. And the consultants move in and out of government to make sure the project – if not any actual train – stays on track. Political scientists write about an “iron triangle” of government agencies that handle a particular issue or project, special interests that benefit from it, and legislative committees that oversee it. The flow of personnel – the “revolving door” – is part of that cozy process.

So how’s all that coziness working out for California taxpayers? Here’s the basic story:

When California shifted its bullet train plan into high gear in 2008, it had just 10 employees to manage and oversee design of the largest public construction project in state history.

Consultants assured the state there was little reason to hire hundreds or thousands of in-house engineers and rail experts, because the consultants could handle the heavy work themselves and save California money. It would take them only 12 years to bore under mountains, bridge rivers and build 520 miles of rail bed — all at a cost of just $33 billion….

But significant portions of this work have been flawed or mismanaged, according to records reviewed by The Times and interviews with dozens of people involved in the project. Despite repeated warnings since 2010 about weaknesses in its staffing, the rail authority believed it could reduce overall costs by relying on consultants and avoiding a large permanent workforce. But that strategy has failed to keep project costs from soaring. Ten years after voters approved it, the project is $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule.

The California TRUST Act Reduced Deportations

Sanctuary policies on the city, county, and state level are frequently in the news.  Opponents claim that they increase crime in jurisdictions while proponents claim that they allow illegal immigrants, their families, and their American neighbors to rest a little easier knowing that the local government won’t help the federal government enforce its immigration laws.  Both sides assume that sanctuary policies produce those results by decreasing the scope and scale of immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions that, in turn, reduce the number of deportations from t

“Genetic Informants” and the Hunt for the Golden State Killer

Last week officers with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer who allegedly committed a dozen murders, at least 50 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries in California between 1976 and 1986. Police made the arrest after uploading DeAngelo’s “discarded DNA” to one of the increasingly popular genealogy websites. Using information from the site, investigators were able to find DeAngelo’s distant relatives, thereby significantly narrowing their list of suspects. This investigatory technique is worth keeping an eye on, not least because millions of people are using DNA-based genealogical sites.

I’m one of them. I’ve signed up to 23andMe as well as MyHeritage, both of which offer DNA analysis. I did this in part because family history is a minor hobby of mine, but also because 23andMe offers interesting medical information. While both companies offer a DNA service, I’ve only used 23andMe’s because MyHeritage allows its users to upload 23andMe data. One of the features of MyHeritage is its “DNA Matching” service, which updates me when a distant relative is found thanks to automated DNA analysis.

This month alone MyHeritage has altered me to the existence of two more 3rd - 5th cousins. This DNA Matching service has identified hundreds of my distant relatives, with varying degrees of confidence. 23andMe has a similar relative-finding feature. MyHeritage and 23andMe, as well as Ancestry.com, have all denied working with law enforcement in the Golden State Killer case.

According to The New York Times, investigators sent the suspected Golden State Killer’s DNA to GEDmatch, a free genealogical service. A GEDmatch release stated that it had not been approached by law enforcement and warned customers, “If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database.”

California’s Pension Woes Exacerbated by Politics

California governor Jerry Brown has been taking a victory lap of sorts after putting forth a budget for fiscal year 2019 that would include a $6 billion surplus, a remarkable turnaround for a state that hemorrhaged red ink in the wake of the great recession.

Of course, much of that surplus arrived via a hefty tax increase, as well as a surfeit of revenue resulting from the stock market boom via capital gains taxes, so attributing this turnaround to fiscal probity might be taking things a bit far.

However, Governor Brown does get credit for at least temporarily righting what seemed to be a sinking ship. What’s more, he seems to realize that this surplus can easily disappear, and he has warned his potential successors to resist spending that surplus. What Brown is fully aware of is that even the most spectacular stock market increase is not enough to erase the state’s most pressing financial problem—namely, its underfunded government pension.

Currently, it has enough money set aside to cover just 68% of its future obligations—certainly far from the most indebted state (that would be my own state of Illinois), but still low enough to dismiss any notion that future stock market growth can remedy the problem.

Despite this, the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, has put politics ahead of achieving a high rate of return by insisting that the boards of the companies it invests in adhere to various social and environmental practices.

It’s nonsense, of course, and it amounts to little more than an extension of politics into a realm that doesn’t have room for it.

California Spending Under Governor Brown

The Wall Street Journal had a flattering piece about Governor Jerry Brown’s budgeting today:

California Gov. Jerry Brown appears poised to exit office next year with a top political priority in hand: free from the massive budget deficits that had weighed on his predecessors.

… Mr. Brown has been preaching frugality for years—he kicked off one past budget talk with Aesop’s fable about the thrifty ant and the lazy grasshopper.

An Electrifyingly Bad Decision

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s decision to give $647 million to California to electrify a San Francisco commuter rail line tells states and cities across the nation that they should plan the most expensive and wasteful infrastructure projects they can and the Trump administration will support them. The Caltrains electrification project had no political, economic, social, or environmental justification, so Chao’s support for the project despite its lack of virtues does not bode well for those who hoped that the Trump administration would take a fiscally conservative stance on infrastructure and transportation.

The California project had already been funded by the Obama administration, but it was a last-minute approval by an acting administrator who immediately then took a high-paying job with one of Caltrains’ contractors. When Chao took office, every single Republican in the California congressional delegation asked her to overturn the decision, and she agreed to review it. Even some Democrats opposed the project, meaning there was far less political pressure to fund it than many other equally wasteful programs.

Caltrains carries just 4 percent of transit riders in the San Francisco Bay Area, and based on the dubious claim that electric trains would go a little faster than Diesel-electric trains, the environmental assessment for the project predicted that electrification would boost ridership by less than 10 percent. It would save no energy and have a trivial effect on air pollution. 

Instead, the main purpose of the Caltrains project was to wire the way for California’s bloated high-speed trains, which at least initially would use the same electric power to get to San Francisco. Normally, high-speed trains would not use the same track as ordinary commuter trains, but the costs of the high-speed rail project have risen so much that the state’s rail authority is cutting corners wherever it can. One result is that the project, if it is ever completed, won’t really run trains at high speeds for much of its route.

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