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Sacramento Report: Facing the Implications of Biased Tech

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In 2019, the California Legislature put a stop to the police use of facial recognition. Although law enforcement agencies view the ability to unmask people as a valuable investigative tool, the technology is imperfect. Research suggests that the algorithms are good at identifying White people but less effective when it comes to people of color. Indeed, there’ve been plenty of stories showing how Black men were falsely identified and accused of crimes.

But because the state’s ban was temporary — it began in 2020 and lasts three years [1] — you’re likely to hear a lot more about biometric surveillance in the Capitol going forward. The debate over its usefulness and potential harms will only intensify because it draws on two competing values: privacy and public safety.

Earlier this year, the Greenlining Institute, a progressive advocacy group, released a report about how algorithms were replacing decision-making [2] at all levels of society, not just policing but health care, housing, finance, education and more. The purpose of the report was to provide policymakers with a baseline understanding of how bias infiltrates even the most well-intentioned, seemingly neutral tools.

The group is advocating for policies [3] — including AB 13, currently up for consideration [4] — that seek to mitigate what’s known as algorithmic discrimination. Another group from California is now suing a facial recognition app for allegedly stockpiling data on 3 billion people [5] without their knowledge or permission. The company, which offered its services to some San Diego agencies [6], contends that its technology is not racially biased and will reduce rather than increase the likelihood of wrongful arrest.

Part of the issue is the quasi-religious faith that officials place in the digital authority of computer programming to see the things that we, as mere mortals, can’t see. In 2018, the Little Hoover Commission warned that California, though home to Silicon Valley, was falling to prepare for a future [7] dominated by artificial intelligence, one that might, say, predict where a wildfire will occur.

Transparency in this space is increasingly important. The interest in facial recognition extends well beyond California and hits close to home.

As I reported earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform once reached out to San Diego with a request for documentation about the city’s use of facial recognition, but the picture it got was less than complete [8]. The response was missing a number of key documents expressing internal concern over some of the same issues I described above, as early as 2011.

— Jesse Marx

Hueso Backs Binational Sewage Solutions

On Cinco de Mayo, one of Mexico’s top diplomats to North America met with state lawmakers to discuss California-Mexico relations amid the COVID-19 recovery.

The main focus was on trade and the binational economy. State Sen. Ben Hueso expressed interest in expanding the region’s manufacturing and tourism sectors while the Mexican Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary for North America, Roberto Valesco, pointed out that $24 billion in goods were imported from California to Mexico.

But the secondary focus, and one partly caused by the rapid post-NAFTA growth of Tijuana’s manufacturing industry, was cross-border sewage spills.

Velasco described this issue as a top priority, and said the Mexican government is moving ahead with projects that should yield results soon.

“We are already working on some important projects that are either already in the public bidding process or that they are already under construction, so that is something we expect to see a lot of movements on this year,” Valesco said.

Hueso touted $300 million in federal spending on border infrastructure issues.

He also congratulated Mexico for its efforts on the issue — which seems premature because aside from promises, nothing has been done to actually address the issue. Imperial Beach’s southern coastline was closed for 295 days last year [9], according to city officials.

“As soon as [the Mexican president] got elected the [foreign ministry] was activated and worked very hard to cut off these flows,” Hueso said. “Currently we are looking to make hundreds of millions of investments.”

Hueso lobbied for binational infrastructure projects, putting him at odds with the mayors of San Diego, Imperial Beach [10], some county officials and local regional water boards who want the money to be spent on a U.S. solution.

“I hope that we can work collaboratively together because I think spending that money binationally will give us a much better result than spending it at the point of the outflow of the river,” he said.

Folks who have followed this issue are skeptical of promises from Washington D.C. or Mexico City. After all, this has been going on since then-Imperial Beach Mayor Brian Bilbray used a construction truck to physically block the spills [11] from reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1980. And the flows have only gotten worse.

In terms of COVID-19 news, very little came out of this conversation.

Valesco said he was trying to get the Mexican government to prioritize vaccines along the border and Hueso said he’d lobby Washington to share the country’s vaccine supply with Mexico. Both with the goal of reopening the border to non-essential travel.

Gustavo Solis

I Guess We Have to Discuss the Bear in the Room

It was a bear of a week. The recall is a circus. What do you want me to say?

San Diego businessman John Cox rebranded his campaign this week by launching a “Meet the Beast” bus tour and adopting the Twitter handle @BeastJohnCox. The effort was topped off by Cox’s inclusion of a 1,000-pound bear named Tag, who appeared at one of the stops on the tour.

Cox’s stunt apparently worked too well, because he then bemoaned the amount of coverage the bear he brought for the purposes of attracting coverage actually attracted.

“The coverage yesterday was all about the bear,” Cox complained, according to a KQED reporter.

San Diego Sen. Ben Hueso condemned Cox’s stunt and used the moment to re-up his 2019 bill, the Circus Cruelty Prevention Act.

“An innocent wild animal shouldn’t have to suffer harassment, confinement, and humiliation because Mr. Cox has a problem generating interest in his campaign,” Hueso wrote in a statement.

The bear’s trainer took issue with that last part.

“Humiliation?” the trainer told the New York Times [12]. “That bear will walk away from you and fart in your face and it doesn’t mean a thing to him. He burps in my face all the time.”

(By the way, did you know the bear on the California state flag is modeled after a now-extinct California grizzly William Randolph Hearst had caught at his request [13]?)

Bear, and jokes about the bear aside, the recall is still moving forward, and Miriam Powell laid out the stakes [14], and the fact that we’re on constantly shifting political ground: “just as the events on that November day unexpectedly propelled a recall few had taken seriously, his fate could shift just as swiftly and dramatically. Democrats need to think through the consequences and weigh what is best for the state against what is best for Mr. Newsom.”

Meanwhile, Newsom did get a big win this week [13] over some of his most vocal opponents: A state appellate court unanimously found he has the right to create or change state laws amid the pandemic. Two state lawmakers had challenged the scope of his powers amid the public health crisis.

Sara Libby

Golden State News