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Axon adds license plate recognition to police dash cams, but heeds ethics board’s concerns – TechCrunch

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Law enforcement tech outfitter Axon has announced that it will include automated license plate recognition in its next generation of dash cams. But its independent ethics board has simultaneously released a report warning of the dire consequences should this technology be deployed irresponsibly.

Axon makes body and dash cams for law enforcement, the platform on which that footage is stored (Evidence.com), and some of the weapons officers use (Taser, the name by which the company was originally known). Fleet 3 is the new model of dash cam, and by recognizing plate numbers will come with the ability to, for example, run requested plates without an officer having to type them in while driving.

The idea of including some kind of image recognition in these products has naturally occurred to them, and indeed there are many situations where law enforcement where such a thing would be useful; Automated icense plate recognition, or ALPR, is no exception. But the ethical issues involved in this and other forms of image analysis (identifying warrant targets based on body cam footage for instance) are many and serious.

In an effort to earnestly engage with these issues and also to not appear evil and arbitrary (as otherwise it might), Axon last year set up an independent advisory board that would be told of Axon’s plans and ideas and weigh in on them in official reports. Today they issued their second, on the usage of ALPR.

Although I’ll summarize a few of its main findings below, the report actually makes for very interesting reading. The team begins by admitting that there is very little information on how police actually use ALPR data, which makes it difficult to say whether it’s a net positive or negative, or whether this or that benefit or risk is currently in play.

That said, the very fact that ALPR use is largely undocumented is evidence in itself of negligence on the part of authorities to understand and limit the potential uses of this technology.

“The unregulated use of ALPRs has exposed millions of people subject to surveillance by law enforcement, and the danger to our basic civil rights is only increasing as the technology is becoming more common,” said Barry Friedman, NYU law professor and member of the ethics board, in a press release. “It is incumbent on companies like Axon to ensure that ALPRs serve the communities who are subject to ALPR usage. This includes guardrails to ensure their use does not compromise civil liberties or worsen existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system.”

You can see that the ethics board does not pull its punches. It makes a number of recommendations to Axon, and it should come as no surprise that transparency is at the head of them.

Law enforcement agencies should not acquire or use ALPRs without going through an open, transparent, democratic process, with adequate opportunity for genuinely representative public analysis, input, and objection.

Agencies should not deploy ALPRs without a clear use policy. That policy should be made public and should, at a minimum, address the concerns raised in this report.

Vendors, including Axon, should design ALPRs to facilitate transparency about their use, including by incorporating easy ways for agencies to share aggregate and de-identified data. Each agency then should share this data with the community it serves.

And let’s improve security too, please.

Interestingly the board also makes a suggestion on the part of conscientious objectors to the current draconian scheme of immigration enforcement: “Vendors, including Axon, must provide the option to turn off immigration-related alerts from the National Crime Information Center so that jurisdictions that choose not to participate in federal immigration enforcement can do so.”

There’s an aspect of state’s rights and plenty of other things wrapped up in that, but it’s a serious consideration these days. A system like this shouldn’t be a cat’s paw for the feds.

Axon, for its part, isn’t making any particularly specific promises, partly because the board’s recommendations reach beyond what it is capable of promising. But it did agree that the data collected by its systems will never be sold for commercial purposes. “We believe the data is owned by public safety agencies and the communities they serve, and should not be resold,” said Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith in the same press release.

I asked for Axon’s perspective on the numerous other suggestions made in the report. A company representative said that Axon appreciates the board’s “thoughtful guidance” and agrees with “their overall approach.” More specifically, the statement continued:

In the interest of transparency, both with our law enforcement customers and the communities they serve, we have announced this initiative approximately a year ahead of initial deployments of Axon Fleet 3. This time period will give us the opportunity to define best practices and a model framework for implementation through conversations with leading public safety and civil liberties groups and the Ethics Board. Prior to releasing the product, we will issue a specific and detailed outline of how we are implementing relevant safeguards including items such as data retention and ownership, and creating an ethical framework to help prevent misuse of the technology.

It’s good that this technology is being deployed amidst a discussion of these issues, but the ethics board isn’t The Board, and Axon (let alone its subordinate ethics team) can’t dictate public policy.

This technology is coming, and if the communities most impacted by it and things like it want to protect themselves, or if others want to ensure they are protected, the issues in the report should be carefully considered and brought up as a matter of policy with local governments. That’s where the recommended changes can really start to take root.

Axon Ethics Report 2 v2 by TechCrunch on Scribd



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Google enables end-to-end encryption for Android’s default SMS/RCS app

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Enlarge / If you and your chatting partner are both on Google Messages and both have RCS enabled, you’ll see these lock icons to show that encryption is on.

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Google has announced that end-to-end encryption is rolling out to users of Google Messages, Android’s default SMS and RCS app. The feature has been in testing for months, and now it’s coming to everyone.

Encryption in Google Messages works only if both users are on the service. Both users must also be in a 1:1 chat (no group chats allowed), and they both must have RCS turned on. RCS was supposed to be a replacement for SMS—an on-by-default, carrier-driven text messaging standard. RCS was cooked up in 2008, and it adds 2008-level features to carrier messaging, like user presence, typing status, read receipts, and location sharing.

Text messaging used to be a cash cow for carriers, but with the advent of unlimited texting and the commoditization of carrier messaging, there’s no clear revenue motivation for carriers to release RCS. The result is that the RCS rollout has amounted to nothing but false promises and delays. The carriers nixed a joint venture called the “Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative” in April, pretty much killing any hopes that RCS will ever hit SMS-like ubiquity. Apple executives have also indicated internally that they view easy messaging with Android as a threat to iOS ecosystem lock-in, so it would take a significant change of heart for Apple to support RCS.

The result is that Google is the biggest player that cares about RCS, and in 2019, the company started pushing its own carrier-independent RCS system. Users can dig into the Google Messages app settings and turn on “Chat features,” which refers to Google’s version of RCS. It works if both users have turned on the checkbox, but again, the original goal of a ubiquitous SMS replacement seems to have been lost. This makes Google RCS a bit like any other over-the-top messaging service—but tied to the slow and out-of-date RCS protocol. For instance, end-to-end encryption isn’t part of the RCS spec. Since it’s something Google is adding on top of RCS and it’s done in software, both users need to be on Google Messages. Other clients aren’t supported.

Google released a whitepaper detailing the feature’s implementation, and there aren’t too many surprises. The company uses the Signal protocol for encryption, just like Signal, Whatsapp, and Facebook Messenger. The Google Messages web app works fine since it still relies on an (encrypted) local connection to your phone to send messages. Encrypted messages on Wear OS are not supported yet but will be at some point (hopefully in time for that big revamp). Even though the message text is encrypted, third parties can still see metadata like sent and received phone numbers, timestamps, and approximate message sizes.

If you and your messaging partner have all the settings right, you’ll see lock icons next to the send button and the “message sent” status.

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Apple’s podcast subscriptions went live today—with a 30 percent cut

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As previously announced in April, Apple has today launched its new Podcasts Subscriptions feature on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. The system allows users to subscribe to podcasts (or groups of podcasts called Channels) for extra perks.

Perks can include early access to episodes, as well as ad-free listening. Some shows may offer bonus content for subscribers as well. You can subscribe to a podcast with just one button using Apple’s payment system.

Podcast creators can charge whatever they please, with the minimum subscription fee being $0.49 per month. Apple takes 30 percent of that amount for the first year, but if a subscriber remains active beyond 12 months, Apple switches to taking just 15 percent of that subscription fee.

Fortunately, Apple doesn’t have any rules against additional ways to monetize podcasts that offer these subscriptions, such as asking listeners to also back a Patreon.

When you subscribe to a podcast, its show page will have a “Subscriber Edition” label on it. You can also trial subscriptions to participating podcasts to see if they’re worth actually paying for. The length of time these trial subscriptions last varies, but it seems to usually be a few days or as long as a week.

Channels are basically podcast bundles curated by someone. Channels aren’t limited to podcasts using Apple’s new subscriptions offerings, though. When you follow more than one channel, a new “My Channels” section will appear in the Listen Now tab of the Podcasts app. Initiating a paid subscription to a channel gives you subscriber status with all its member podcasts.

Podcasts Subscriptions will be available in 170 countries and regions on devices running iOS 14.6, iPadOS 14.6, and macOS 11.4 or later.

Listing image by Apple

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Make way for Windows 11? Windows 10 end-of-life is October 2025

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Enlarge / Please show your retired operating system the respect it deserves, with a proper Viking funeral.

A new Windows visual refresh, code-named Sun Valley. is on the way this summer. Until recently, we’ve assumed that this update would simply bring a new look for Windows 10 21H2—the major release of Windows 10 in the second half of 2021—but new information in the form of posted end-of-life (EOL) dates for Windows 10 and a leaked screenshot of something purporting to be “Windows 11 Pro” heavily imply that serious changes are on the way.

Windows 10 EOL in 2025

Rumors of Sun Valley being “Windows 11” have been circulating for months—but until recently, we didn’t put much stock in them. Windows 10 was intended to be Windows as a Service—a radical departure from the prior era of new, major Windows releases every three years or so. It seemed likely that Sun Valley’s “sweeping visual rejuvenation” would result in Windows 10 21H2 looking very different from Windows 10 21H1. Why fix what’s not broken?

The first strong indication that bigger things may be coming landed last week from a Microsoft-published EOL notice for Windows 10. “Windows 10 Home and Pro”—no codenames, no minor version numbers—is now listed as retiring on October 14, 2025. “Retiring” is a part of the Modern Lifecycle Policy and means that the retired product leaves support entirely; this does not follow the old Fixed Lifecycle Policy with “mainstream” and “extended” support. Retired is retired—hit the pasture.

As Windows Central points out, the retirement date isn’t entirely a new phenomenon—Microsoft initially launched the operating system with “mainstream support” through October 2020 and “extended support” through October 2025, the same five-/10-year-support period it provides for server and enterprise operating systems. What has changed is the way Microsoft talks about that end of support—there was no retirement date for Windows 10 as a whole shown on the home-and-pro life cycle page until recently.

There isn’t any real question about the end of life at this point—Microsoft has published it, and we have no reason to think it won’t happen. The interesting questions revolve around what comes next and when it will happen.

Windows 11 in 2021?

We’ve been seeing rumors about Sun Valley being a new Windows 11 for a few months—and until Microsoft posted a fresh EOL for Windows 10, we were skeptical. Windows 10 has been touted as “Windows as a Service” with no real expiration date for some time now, and there was no real reason to expect anything different.

The end-of-life date for Windows 10 as an entire operating system changes that—and it’s backed up by leaked screenshots of a Windows build claiming to be “Windows 11 Pro” which showed up today on Baidu. The new build is visually similar to the canceled Windows 10X, and its screenshots appear legitimate. (The Verge says it can “confirm they are genuine,” with no details as to how.)

What does a new version of Windows mean for me?

For now, it’s unclear what a new “Windows 11” means for end users—there are no guarantees that existing Windows 10 licenses will allow the use of Windows 11, let alone an in-place upgrade. We also have no concrete idea about when new releases of Windows 10 will cease, when the first Windows 11 will be available, or what costs will be.

We do have an educated guess or two, though—Microsoft’s generous upgrade policies from Windows 7 to Windows 10 (you can still upgrade for free today!) strongly imply a similar policy for 11, which Microsoft will presumably be keen to get users on. We also don’t expect under-the-hood changes as sweeping as the ones which took place between 7 and 10. In all likelihood, in-place upgrades will be available.

We’d also like to point out that the consumer support cycle for Windows 10 is short. For example, Windows 10 21H1—the most current build—is only supported through December 2022. That’s a roughly 18-month lifecycle, and there are no extended support policies for consumer Windows anymore. When it leaves support, you’re expected to upgrade to the next version if you want to continue getting support and bugfixes.

We may or may not see a Windows 10 21H2 or even a Windows 10 22H1. But we don’t expect to see a new Windows 10 build past 2023 at the latest since that would imply the need to support 10 past its October 2025 retirement date.

More details are on the way

If you find the lack of concrete detail here frustrating, you’re not alone. Fortunately, the wait won’t be long—Microsoft’s What’s Next for Windows digital event is coming June 24, and we expect plenty of screenshots, news, and more detailed upgrade guidance at that time.

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