Good to Know — April 8, 2016

What we’re keeping an eye on this week.


How body cam footage can mislead

Photo via the New York Times

An interactive quiz and feature by the New York Times shows how video footage from body-worn cameras can provide an incomplete — and often misleading — depiction of how an incident actually unfolded. The interactive feature takes the reader through three different hypothetical incidents: an up close encounter, a foot pursuit, and a traffic stop. The Times notes that:

Readers who said at the start that they had a high level of trust in the police or tended to trust the police were more likely to believe that the officer faced a very threatening, or somewhat threatening, situation, according to our updated results. For those who said they distrusted the police, or tended to, the interaction looked less dangerous for the officer.
This confirms what Professor [Seth] Stoughton [a law professor at the University of South Carolina and producer of the videos] has found in his own presentations with judges, lawyers and students: What we see in police video footage tends to be shaped by what we already believe.
“Our interpretation of video is just as subject to cognitive biases as our interpretation of things we see live,” Professor Stoughton said. “People disagree about policing and will continue to disagree about exactly what a video shows.”

A recent Yale Law Journal note by Roseanna Sommers — Will Putting Cameras on Police Reduce Polarization? — reaches a similar conclusion. In examining the results of a study on how people’s prior attitudes about police affect their interpretations of body cam footage, Sommers finds that

despite the seeming objectivity of the camera, video footage remains susceptible to biased interpretation by observers such as grand jurors. . . . This holds true for factual or objective judgments, such as whether a weapon was present and whether physical force was used; evaluative judgments, such as whether the police officer treated the citizen fairly; and global judgments, such as whether the police officer deserves to be sanctioned for misconduct.

New investigation lays bare the unprecedented scale of aerial surveillance operations.

An FBI flight over Brockton, MA on April 5, 2016. Photo via Flight Aware

An in-depth investigation by Peter Aldhous and Charles Seife in Buzzfeed explores the world of aerial government surveillance, supplementing last year’s investigation by the Associated Press into the scale of the FBI’s use of surveillance aircraft. The investigation

detected nearly 100 FBI fixed-wing planes, mostly small Cessnas, plus about a dozen helicopters. Collectively, they made more than 1,950 flights over our four-month-plus observation period. The aircraft frequently circled or hovered around specific locations, often for several hours in the daytime over urban areas.
We also tracked more than 90 aircraft, about two-thirds of them helicopters, that were registered to the DHS, which is responsible for border protection, customs, and immigration. Not surprisingly, these planes were especially active around border towns such as McAllen, Texas, which faces the Mexican city of Reynosa across the Rio Grande.
But the DHS’s airborne operations also extended far into the U.S. interior. And over some cities, notably Los Angeles, its aircraft seemed to circle around particular locations, behaving like those in the FBI’s fleet.

This aerial surveillance could disproportionately target specific neighborhoods based on ethnicity or religion with relative anonymity. “When people think of surveillance, they think of the NSA, or of specific people being tracked, or mosques being infiltrated,” Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, told BuzzFeed. “They aren’t necessarily thinking about planes circling overhead of American cities and doing god knows what. It’s important for people to be aware.” Though BuzzFeed’s investigation found that some mosques and neighborhoods with large Muslim populations were at the center of circles traced by FBI planes, there was “no clear pattern indicating widespread surveillance of mosques.”


Techies highlights the underrepresented in “the greater tech narrative.”

Techies is a portrait project originally conceived by photographer Helena Price and brought to life with the help of Alonzo Felix and Martha Schumann. The project seeks to “to show the world a more comprehensive picture of people who work in tech, and to bring a bit of attention to folks in the industry whose stories have never been heard, considered or celebrated.”

Here’s a preview of the project’s interview with Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest:

Then there was a specific moment, when I was at the Grace Hopper conference in 2013, at a group breakfast with Sheryl Sandberg, where she made a comment to the effect of how the numbers of women in tech were dropping precipitously and we needed to take action, that I had the gut response: “How do you know what the numbers are? How does anyone know what the numbers are?” And then I was struck by the irony that in an industry that was so data-driven, where we had metrics and dashboards for everything, where we studied conversion funnels from landing page to signup to activation so fastidiously, where we ran A/B tests for every new color and UI element much less new features; we had no data on diversity.