Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Laurence h. Shoup
Shut It Down
School Segregation Redux
E. Wayne Ross
Science & Technology
Gay & Lesbian Community Notes
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
I ronically, there is little about New York City’s beloved MetroCard to suggest forensic sophistication. Its single notched corner, ostensibly to orient the blind, seems to belong to that class of minor traumas—chipped teeth and mashed knuckles—one associates with an NYPD holding cell rather than Riker’s. Its inoffensive typography, sunny side up like a motorman’s late breakfast, is a faux Superman logo and a plea to the swift and clumsy that one should calmly “insert this way”; the adjoining slash gives one a moment to reflect before it deadpans a quiet clarification, “this side facing you.” Its one visibly distinguishing characteristic, exiled to the pictographic clutter of the flipside, is a serial number imprinted onto a nonreflective white strip. This number, however, is what distinguishes the MetroCard from most other municipal transit passes: with every swipe through a subway turnstile, the MetroCard transmits its unique serial number, the current time and date, and its location to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s data center, where the information remains until systematically purged or reprieved in the course of an investigation by the Transit Bureau’s special investigations unit. MetroCard logs have been audited in recent years to discredit suspect alibis in a number of NYPD investigations, including the December 1999 assault and robbery of a Manhattan supermarket manager following which a suspect’s MetroCard recorded a swipe in lower Manhattan’s South Ferry subway station despite the accused’s claim that he had spent the day in question on Staten Island.
Although a discredited alibi may ultimately serve as little more than blood in the water for a successful prosecution, law enforcement agencies throughout the world have embraced the technique of electronic auditing as a sure sign of things to come in the burgeoning field of forensic technology. Automated toll tracking, financial transaction analysis, cellular phone triangulation, Internet monitoring, email decryption, DNA analysis, video surveillance, and facial recognition software have all become sought-after forensic technologies in recent years, seeming at times to have relegated composite sketch artists and purveyors of dusty latents to the pages of a remaindered Mickey Spillane whodunit. Stoked by periodic warnings of malicious hackers, identity theft, and the reliably impenetrable Russian mob—and not unmindful of the renewed popularity of TV forensic procedurals like “CSI”—law enforcement agencies have responded annually with exponentially higher budgets for cutting-edge equipment and training, invariably showing up at technophile trade shows like Comdex in search of the latest retinal scanner or low-light video camera.
What generally isn’t mentioned on the trade show floor, however, is the dirty little question of authentication: is possession of a transit card sufficient to lock down a suspect’s itinerary and is a false alibi necessarily a guilty plea? How reliable is video footage captured by an ATM and would you be able to pick a suspect out of a lineup based on a low resolution black-and-white image? How secure is a web-based email account from misappropriation of identity? Forensic technology relies on the fact that as citizens and consumers we unconsciously leave both physical and electronic evidence in our wake—by analyzing individual nodes in a suspect’s datastream (a credit card purchase here, a subway transfer there), investigators can piece together events and motives surrounding a criminal act. Unfortunately, many of the aforementioned technologies rely on authentication by proxy, the tacit assumption that a piece of evidence was physically connected in some fashion to the accused at the time of a crime. While this might appear a pretty safe assumption in most criminal investigations, that negligible element of ambiguity—the possibility, perhaps, that a suspect’s credit card was surreptitiously borrowed or its number and expiration date appropriated following a carelessly handled transaction, or that a discredited alibi hides not a murder, but a hotel tryst—invariably results in an accumulation of what the courts have long recognized as circumstantial evidence and raises the disturbing possibility that America’s current forensic renaissance is creating a culture of DNA Lite, a judicial tautology in which forensic jargon, technology boosterism, and the unrelated success of DNA fingerprinting somehow manage to sell the notion that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s clearly guilty of being a duck. Even should the courts resist the continued temptation to aggrandize circumstantial evidence obtained through bleeding-edge technology, taxpayers and civil libertarians may justifiably ask whether the cost, both financial and ethical, is worth the feverish acquisition of evidence with ultimately limited prosecutorial weight.
Nearly a quarter of a decade after investigators in Leicestershire, England came up with a rather novel method of solving two related homicides, the undisputed 500-pound gorilla of forensic technology today remains DNA analysis. As familiar to schoolchildren today as an iconographized Albert Einstein (and almost as poorly understood), the DNA double helix is a complex arrangement of protein molecules, which architects the distinctive genetic characteristics of a living organism. Using hair, blood stains, semen, bone marrow, or any other tissue or bodily fluid that contains nucleated cells, a suspect’s characteristic genetic markers can be visualized onto x-ray film in a barcode-like pattern and then compared with genetic material retrieved from a crime scene. Theoretically all but infallible, DNA analysis came of age in America during the frenzied 1995 celebrity murder trial of O.J. Simpson, during which genetic evidence was clouded by accusations of mishandling of blood samples and crime scene tampering. Despite its inauspicious 15 minutes in the limelight, DNA analysis has continued to play an aggressive role in criminal investigations and surprise exonerations, prompting the state of Illinois in January 2000 to declare a moratorium on executions until death row inmates could be allowed the opportunity to undergo genetic sequencing, a decision made after 13 Illinois death penalty cases were overturned due to an embarrassment of exculpatory evidence. Myriad technical advancements have been implemented since DNA first burst into the courtroom like an overzealous DA and a laboratory process, which once took weeks can now be completed in just hours for the same price as dinner for two at a midtown Manhattan restaurant. Although serious concerns have been raised about the unregulated warehousing of private genetic data, DNA analysis is now widely recognized as a crime investigator’s Remington flathead—the one tool that no paid professional should be without.
Genetic sequencing is, however, considered merely a subset of a much broader pursuit of human-machine interaction popularly known as biometrics. Retinal scanning, voiceprint identification, fingerprint deconstruction, handwriting analysis, keyboard dynamics, and video surveillance are all biometric technologies, since they attempt to identify unique physiological characteristics of a human subject. Taxonomy notwithstanding, though, none of the aforementioned—as shall be seen—approach DNA analysis as a quantitatively reliable forensic tool and, while biometric forms of authentication by definition would appear to be all but impossible to “hack,” the greatest threat to biometrics isn’t fraud at all, but accuracy. Deployed “in the wild,” many biometric detectors fail to identify legitimate users or inappropriately recognize strangers (“false positives,” in the prevailing security lexicon). The human form, as it happens, is not so easy to quantify.
If you haven’t visited NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain stronghold recently, you’re perhaps unaware that optical-, voice-, and fingerprint-based technologies are no longer reserved for Blade Runners and 007’s late-model Aston Martin. Biometric sensors are turning up more and more in various restricted military and financial facilities with some speculative crossover into consumer applications, although their relative paucity limits their likelihood as forensic tools. All three are among the most accurate forms of biometric authentication on the market, since they require close interaction (generally anywhere from a few feet away to actual contact) and a certain amount of time to achieve an accurate scan (a few seconds, on average). Retina scans rank among the most creepily reliable matches, employing a high resolution analysis of distinctive blood vessel patterns in the eye. Iris scans are significantly less conclusive, particularly when obtained from a distance of several inches or more as is generally the case when used in conjunction with video surveillance systems. Both systems presumably benefit from the visceral unease of going eye-to-eye with the machine and being first to blink.
Voice recognition technology, on the other hand, remains plagued by tonal variation and lack of clarity, a far cry from the contemplative percipience of Kubrick’s HAL 9000, and barely manages to maintain a tentative foothold in the consumer marketplace by requiring users to undergo lengthy voice training exercises during which the system learns to recognize an individual’s ostensibly annoying speech patterns. Fingerprints have lately come to acquire a similar stigma. Whether acquired digitally, using a CCD (a “charge-coupled device,” such as one might find in a digital camera), or lifted from a handgun with loctite cyanoacrylate, crime scene latents still often are an exercise in interpretation, relying on a statistical accumulation of matching loops, whorls, and arches to trigger a probable match.
Handwriting and keyboard dynamics analysis are of a particularly ambiguous class of biometric technology. Handwriting analysis has a long and contentious history of ambiguous interpretation, which it shares with the polygraph, making it one of the least valuable forms of evidence in most fraud cases and lending it the aura of a vaguely unsavory profession practiced by retired civil servants and women with a few too many cats. Although technology-assisted handwriting analysis takes into account several heretofore unacknowledged characteristics of a subject’s signature, such as speed and stylus pressure, a quick glance through one’s cancelled checks is enough to reveal handwriting analysis’s Achilles heel: signatures, like snowflakes, are never exactly alike.
Keyboard dynamics is, in a sense, handwriting analysis’s digital progeny: by analyzing a subject’s distinctive hunt-and-peck strategies at the keyboard, the system is said to distinguish quantifiable differences in user training, reflexes, and habit. Since accuracy is directly related to the length of a subject’s text sample—and a significant sample is often required to perform even a superficial analysis—many security professionals see this particular form of biometric technology as less than viable in most authentication scenarios.
Video surveillance may currently be the most popular of all biometric technologies, with the exception of DNA sequencing. The two are extremely dissimilar technologies: whereas DNA analysis requires a physical sample within which to isolate genetic material, video surveillance and “eigenface” (facial recognition) systems are limited to a cursory glance across a crowded room. Within seconds at best, a video surveillance system must deconstruct musculature, bone structure, and other distinctive facial features, compare these algorithmically with a database of suspects, and judiciously decide whether the individual humping across its field of view in what may well be a wig and glasses is a confidant of Osama bin Laden. As a January 2002 report by the ACLU discusses, such systems are predictably error-prone. Based on an installation of the Visionics Corporations’s Face-IT system for the Tampa Police Department, the ACLU concluded that the system failed to identify a single suspect in its database and generated innumerable false positives before being discontinued. A trial run of this same software by PC Magazine revealed how a crafty tester used a color printer to create a photograph of a face familiar to the system, cut a nose hole to give the mask appropriate depth if an unflattering likeness, and achieved access as an apparently legitimate user.
Despite the dubious success rate of many biometric technologies, law enforcement agencies continue to court Silicon Valley solutions to problems, which might benefit more from competent policework and investigative rigor. Of equal concern is the increasing monitoring and potential abuse of non-biometric forms of authentication in the pursuit of criminal prosecutions. While biometric technologies require some form of contact with the subject, many alternate forms of authentication do not. Password and PIN access, for instance, are easily subverted by non-material theft (a subject may not even be aware that his or her authentication has been compromised), as are email accounts. Both the National Security Agency’s multinational Echelon system and the FBI’s Carnivore system monitor email traffic with little or no judicial oversight, compiling profiles on suspicious individuals and subversive organizations based on the incidence of keywords in unencrypted and loosely authenticated electronic correspondence, raising the possibility that you can be flagged if someone with your name or a similar email address happens to muse in print that Scott Ian, guitarist of Anthrax fame, is da bomb.
Cellular phones and transit cards also employ non-biometric forms of authentication, since they can be used by someone other than the accused (or employed by the accused for purposes which may only seem to support a prosecutor’s interpretation of events). As any criminal attorney will avow, there’s a big difference between putting the accused at the scene of the crime and putting the accused down the street at an ATM. Despite the limited prosecutorial weight of technologies such as cellular phone triangulation (the “homing in” on a cellular phone by the strength of its signal relative to nearby transmitting towers), law enforcement policymakers continue to pursue expanded legislation for tracking wireless devices and intercepting packet-mode communications (e.g., text messages used by alphanumeric pagers), if only for the aura of authority that accompanies the introduction of technology-laden evidence in a criminal trial.
Biometric or not, authentication protocols and technologies inevitably shift the burden of proof to the accused, leaving it to defense attorneys to establish a clear demarcation between a suspect and his or her various authenticated identities, lending certain trials the eerie foreshadowing of what the ACLU describes in its report on video surveillance systems as a “move to permanently brand some people as ‘under suspicion’...” While few would debate the relative value of circumstantial evidence to criminal prosecution or fail to appreciate the advantages of surveillance technology in the conviction of organized crime figures, the growing popularity of security scans, biometric algorithms, and serial numbers may seem more than a bit disconcerting. Security is by all counts a multibillion dollar industry in the United States, with significant marketshare in the casino gaming industry, among others. Unsurprisingly, a disproportionately small amount of this expenditure seems to trickle down through the justice system to the laboratories that analyze DNA in both criminal prosecutions and appeals, leaving much of the financial burden to The Innocence Project and other pro bono legal funds that utilize genetic evidence to defend the wrongly accused and indigent. Although forensic technologies will undoubtedly continue to assist in the conviction of actual felons, the rest of us will have to content ourselves with the tenuous protection of the First Amendment and the promise of a safer casino.
Timothy Quinn is a writer and technology professional. He currently lives and works in New York City.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.