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Taser investigation, remote cheers, tracing app and more: best of the week’s news

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Investigation: Why tasers are being misused by British police

Today the UK police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, launches a review into whether officers in England and Wales have been racially discriminating against ethnic minorities. Its scope will include the use of a safety-critical technology that E&T has been investigating.

There’s plenty of evidence to indicate people of ethnic minorities do suffer unfair treatment: incidents caught on camera; national statistics on stop and search and other police actions; and perhaps most importantly of all, the testimonies from ethnic minorities themselves describing the kind of treatment they have come to expect but should not.

An attempt to identify the systemic problem, rather than investigate incidents as isolated cases, is well overdue.

The enquiry launch comes as the Metropolitan Police issued an apology to athlete Bianca Williams over a stop-and-search incident that became a viral video and after weeks of protest by the Black Lives Matter movement. It also follows allegations over the misuse of tasers, especially against black men, which the enquiry is expected to cover. E&T this week published its exclusive investigation into how tasers are used and how the technology can be used more fairly, safely and effectively.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Japanese football fans contribute remote cheering via Yamaha app

Yamaha has started a remote cheering project with 26 professional football clubs in Japan. How many kinds of cheers can you do? I’ve just experimented: turns out I can whoop and shout in many different ways.

Aimed at creating a ‘new normal’ for sports fans cheering from home, Yamaha has rolled out an early offering of its currently in-development remote-cheering system ‘Remote Cheerer powered by SoundUD’ to enable remote cheering for 26 football clubs at selected Meiji Yasuda J1 League matches (the Japanese equivalent of the English Premier League); Meiji Yasuda J2 League matches (similar to the English Championship) and Meiji Yasuda J3 League matches.

Remote Cheerer is intended to become a new way of spectating sports and participating in the excitement and atmosphere of a live game during periods such as is happening worldwide now, when football matches have to be played behind locked stadium doors to enforce social distancing and control the coronavirus pandemic.

The hilarity that could ensue if you could record every kind of hoot and holler: I would risk the wrath of being banned from the app by slipping in some colourful language.

Remote Cheerer enables users to tap ‘support buttons’ via a mobile site as each match unfolds, playing back their remotely triggered cheers and applause through speakers set up at the match stadiums. The system was developed in consideration of hospitalised children; those busy with responsibilities such as childcare, the disabled and elderly, and football supporters unable to attend stadiums, allowing them to cheer together with attending supporters and having their support reach stadiums.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Investigation: Why tasers are being misused by British police

Really interesting and thought-provoking piece from E&T associate editor Ben Heubl. As I was reading through it, there was one thought that kept screaming back at me: I would far rather we had racist policemen with tasers than racist policemen with guns. The episode with Rayshard Brooks, the Alabama black man shot in the back after stealing a police officer’s taser, was horrifying. Did he really need to be shot - fatally - in the back? Wouldn’t a leg wound have done the job? When guns get involved, the stakes become so much higher.

Incidentally, when I was looking up Rayshard Brooks’ name, it was already lost in the noise of other gun-related crime and death in Alabama, even though it was only a month ago. Tasers are clearly dangerous, but I feel society is far better and safer for having police armed with them rather than guns.

The gist of the article is that the police are using tasers disproportionately against black people. I do believe there are socio-economic reasons why more black men are targeted by police. The extent to which these socio-economic reasons are in turn down to racism in society, I don’t know – it is undoubtedly a factor, but hopefully one that is gradually dying out, albeit on generational timescales. This doesn’t excuse direct racism in the police force. Without knowing all the facts, it appears that sprinter Bianca Williams was stopped and searched this week really for no other reason than she was black. There is no glossing over the problem.

I read a very emotive account by a university professor in America who was stopped (completely needlessly) by police and was let off on the street only because a passer-by recognised him and his educated status came to the rescue. He admitted that such was the fear of being left at the disposal of the police that he would not have got in the squad car and been taken ‘downtown’ – he would have struggled and run. Does that make him guilty? Justification for a shot in the back?

I can’t imagine the thought processes of a victimised black man. I’m white, middle-aged and male and there seems to be a barrage of opinionated youths telling me I’m not allowed to have empathy with people of colour (am I allowed to use that expression this week?). Perhaps not, but I can still be appalled by the injustice and like everyone must play a part in removing prejudice.

Does this mean that police using taser technology is wrong? I don’t think so, but clearly more training is needed if the officers involved are using tasers unnecessarily or aiming the tasers at parts of the body that could cause death. If it is not ignorance but prejudice that is causing the misuse, those offenders need to be weeded out of the police force. It is clear there are racists in the police, but I do not believe (hopefully, not naively) that the police force is inherently racist.

It is a very interesting article, anyway, and highlights the role of technology in our social fabric and conscience.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Medical implants powered using the translucency of human skin

Call it wishful thinking, but seeing the headline of his news story, I was quick to misread its message as relating to all kinds of implants, rather than just to ‘powered’ ones that use batteries. The reason is that for more than three years now I have been carrying an implanted bovine heart valve in my body. It was inserted there during a seven-hour operation to replace my malfunctioning (regurgitating) ‘original’ heart valve. During the surgery my heart was stopped for 20 minutes (so I was told later) and I was put on a heart-and-lung machine which resulted in some nasty post-surgery complications that nearly killed me (the human heart doesn’t like to be messed with, you see).

The average ‘length of service’ for an implanted biological heart valve, I was told by the surgeon, is 10-12 years, after which it has to be replaced. He reassured me somewhat by saying that by the time it needs replacing there will be a technology to allow the procedure to be carried out without opening up my chest – by keyhole surgery.

His words were indeed encouraging since one thing I definitely wasn’t looking forward to was another rendezvous with the artificial lungs and heart, even a brief one. You will understand why on seeing this story’s headline I was quick to mistake it for the announcement of the much-coveted technological breakthrough. Only on reading it in full did I realise that the breakthrough only concerns battery-powered implants such as pacemakers, which I, luckily, do not carry in my body. Not yet.

To be honest, prior to the operation, I was given a choice to avoid the replaceable valve by having a ‘mechanical’ metal one implanted instead. The latter is expected to function until the end of one’s life and doesn’t require replacement. Its only technical drawback is… ticking. Yes, a gentle but audible constant ticking in your chest!

I searched for information about the mechanical valve online and read some ‘reviews’, one of which was from an eight-year-old boy, who wrote that after his dad got a metallic heart valve installed they had a new pastime in the family: getting together on a sofa of an evening, switching off the TV and listening to “Daddy ticking”.

I didn’t feel like becoming a walking alarm clock to the end of my days, so opted for a biological valve – porcine (from a pig) or bovine (from a cow or a bull). Luckily, they ran out of the pigs’ ones shortly before my surgery (as they told me later) and I ended up with the cow’s.

Well, it could have been worse. Moo-ch worse…

Ben Heubl, associate editor

UK and Australian data watchdogs to investigate Clearview AI

Clearview is an interesting company that E&T will pick up on in our next print edition. There we will explain how anyone can build a facial-recognition system and why it's a bad idea for privacy. The firm’s ‘scraping’ practices are worrying because of the scalability of the operation. In my view as an analyst, Google is on the brink of enabling facial recognition-supported search, mainly to chase competitors and offer the best service to users in order to stay ahead of competing search engines.

Clearview operates in the EU and in California. Theoretically, the firm should have data on me. In an attempt to understand what the company holds on me, I launched a subject access request. That’s a fairly simple procedure and you can do this yourself by going to this link and demanding your data.

One major caveat, though: you have to submit a ‘government-issued photo ID’. I used my National Union of Journalists (NUJ) press pass and hope for acceptance. The real issue is that now Clearview has an indexed image of my face together with my full name and date of birth. With a click it can check across billions of images whether I appeared in any of those scraped images or, possibly, even online videos. That’s counterproductive and defeats the purpose. Given my history of investigative reporting on controversial subjects, chances are good that Clearview - and by the same token any contracting law-enforcement services - has my face in their database already, anyway. Well, in about 20 working days we’ll know more and you’ll be the first to know.

Investigation: Why Tasers are being misused by British police

I was surprised that so little information was publicly available on how officers are being trained and prepared for using tasers. How is this information not being disclosed, due to it being deemed 'too sensitive'. Why are we not being told what’s in the training guidelines and what isn’t? Are authorities afraid that suspects could use this knowledge to their advantage? In fact, that’s not a bad idea. People, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds and minorities, need to know their rights when they face police in the street. If they know - and we all know - what's allowed and what's not recommended when it comes to taser use, chances are higher that most officers will also obey the rules they learn in training. These training curricula need to be disclosed and reviewed as soon as possible. The IOPC, the police watchdog, just announced it will start a review into race discrimination.

‘Detection engine’ grades tweets based on potential for harm

This deserved a bit more attention than a news article can convey, so I reached out to the team of researchers and submitted 13,000 tweets with a handful of artificially infused cyber-bullying tweets. We’re waiting for the researchers to have a go at it and will share the results with you once they’re available.

Further research into fake content last week brought to light a London startup called Synthesia. It offers clients the ability to create deepfake videos in a matter of seconds. E&T put it to the test and created a number of test videos.

You can give it a try yourself by following this link. I produced a few test videos here and here. You can make the man or woman from the templates say whatever your heart desires, given the text gets approved by Synthesia's vigilant content review team.

E&T's test deepfake video

Image credit: Ben Heubl/E&T

Arguably controversial – deepfakes have come under fire in connection with a variety of disinformation offences - the technology could become a big money saver. Deepfake offerings like this one could replace the need to hire multiple language speakers. The machine is always accessible and the production costs are a fraction of conventional methods.

One thing that producers should bear in mind is to make it painstakingly clear that any deepfake video is indeed a deepfake. With Synthesia's videos, that's fairly obvious, in my view. It only takes one bad deepfake disinformation example to destroy technological advancements that have actually fairly useful aspects. Healthy awareness is good. Fearmongering that deepfakes will make us all believe a fake information universe may be overblown.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Delayed coronavirus app is ‘not core’ to contact-tracing programme, Lords told

How odd. The contact-tracing app absolutely was a central pillar of the government's strategy for coping with coronavirus only a couple of months ago. In mid-April, health secretary Matt Hancock finally announced the UK's contact-tracing app, even if nothing much then happened for a few weeks. Boris Johnson repeatedly gave blithe assurances that the UK would have a 'world-beating' app, whatever that means, as if the UK was in competition with rival countries to build the best app and win… what exactly? In fairness, Johnson never actually gave a date when the UK could expect to see the app. How's 2021 for everyone? Here's a slogan Johnson can get behind: Get the contact-tracing app done.

A cynical observer might suggest that the Government appeared to lose interest in the contact-tracing app right about the time when it was obliged to reluctantly switch from the centralised model it was doggedly clinging to - and which promised to gift whoever was in charge of the app a neatly packaged, highly valuable, data-rich tranche of information about the health of millions of UK citizens - to the decentralised model, as used by almost every other country in the world, where the data is held and processed locally on the individual's smartphone. You just can't make any money or leverage insights from all that personal data if you're using a decentralised model. It's almost as if the fundamental purpose of a contact-tracing app should be to protect the population and assist the health service as best it can, not be a Trojan horse for government surveillance and data mining.

From the noises made this week, it seems possible now that the UK might never get a contact-tracing app. Certainly, the Government is keener these days to downplay an app's importance in the overall 'strategy' (if you can legitimately call this bumbling, clueless farce a strategy) for coping with the ongoing pandemic. It's almost as if it's too hard, so they can't be bothered. Other countries have had no such problems, so it appears to be an exclusively English malaise. Whoever would have thought that an administration led by Boris Johnson would prove to be so useless in a crisis?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

High-tech cash machines could replace physical bank branches

The hygiene aspects alone of handling coins and banknotes during the ongoing pandemic have been enough to persuade me to finally join the cashless society in recent months. In fact, this week saw my first visit to an ATM since March or April and then only because there wasn’t an alternative to using hard currency.

It’ll take some getting used to. Downloading a specific app to my phone just to be able to pay for an hour or two in the car park I usually use when doing my weekly shop is a bridge too far. As long as the machines still accept coins, I’ll retain a stash in a relatively sterile environment just for that purpose or similar situations elsewhere.

Otherwise, I’m now tapping my contactless card without a second thought. Except that I really ought to be checking my bank account more often to make sure transactions have gone through correctly. I know there’s an app for that, but I’m not confident enough yet about having access to my finances on a mobile device to take the plunge.

Which is why this call by ATM manufacturer Diebold Nixdorf for the hole in the wall on your high street to provide more services than just dispensing notes makes sense. Never mind the increasing numbers of elderly people who don’t even have a smart phone and are still firmly wedded to the idea of doing everything face-to-face with an actual human in ‘their’ bank.

Smarter, accessible ATMs would be an ideal compromise. Who knows, future generations may even wonder why we ever called them ‘cash machines’ in the first place.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Huawei 5G infrastructure will take five years to remove, operators say

The continuing to-and-fro over Huawei’s inclusion in 5G networks genuinely baffles me at this point. My understanding is that there is still no definitive evidence that the firm has used its telecommunications infrastructure to help the Chinese government conduct espionage operations.

However, despite the protestations of both the Chinese state and Huawei that the two are separate entities, the strong reaction from China towards foreign states who threaten Huawei’s market position is highly suspect for a political body that supposedly has no stake in a private company’s fortunes.

What there is strong evidence for is that Huawei helped build North Korea’s mobile network – possibly the most unpleasant and despotic regime in the world. Considering this, does it even matter how closely tied the company is to the state or not?

Now I know that mobile networks complain that it may be a bit more expensive if they are banned from using Huawei, but do these egregious abuses of human rights have literally no bearing on their decision making? Is the only thing that’s important to these firms the cost of 5G rollout? I suspect, unfortunately, the answer is yes.

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