Activision Blizzard workers stage walkout over Call of Duty studio layoffs

Employees and contractors at Activision Blizzard are walking out of work today in support of their colleagues at Raven Software. The protest, the third such to hit the company since it was over sexual harassment allegations in July, comes after Raven, one of the studios that supports Activision’s incredibly popular Call of Duty franchise, laid off 12 quality assurance contractors. The action started on Monday when 60 workers at Raven Software, including both full-time employees and contractors, left work to protest the surprise terminations.

The protest has no planned end date, a first for the walkouts at Activision Blizzard. Those involved in the action are demanding the publisher hire all QA contractors, including those who lost their jobs on Friday, as full-time employees. “Those participating in this demonstration do so with the continued success of the studio at the forefront of their mind,” said Blizzard Activision worker advocacy group A Better ABK on Twitter. “The Raven QA department is essential to the day-to-day functioning of the studio as a whole. Terminating the contracts of high performing testers in a time of consistent work and profit puts the health of the studio at risk.”

Management at Raven told QA staff at the end of last week it would hold one-on-one meetings with everyone to decide if they would get the chance to stay at the studio as a full-time staff member. The developer told approximately 30 percent of the team their contracts would end on January 28th, with more still waiting to find if they’ll have a job beyond the start of the year. According to A Better ABK, every worker Raven decided not to keep was in “good standing,” which is to say they had not underperformed in their job or committed a fireable offense.

According to , Raven studio head Brian Raffel said during an all-hands meeting on Monday he didn’t consider the terminations as layoffs. Instead, he said the studio had merely decided not to renew the contracts of those who were let go. Raffel reportedly later apologized for his comments.

“We are converting approximately 500 temporary workers to full-time employees in the coming months,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson in response to the layoffs. “Unfortunately, as part of this change, we also have notified 20 temporary workers across studios that their contracts would not be extended.” The move comes after the publisher posted a million during its most recent fiscal quarter.

We’ve reached out to Activision Blizzard for additional comment.

This latest action isn’t directly related to the misconduct claims that have left Activision Blizzard in turmoil for months — though it’s likely safe to say frustrations across the company are at a boiling point. The first walkout occurred in July shortly after the company issued an “” response to the harassment lawsuit from California’s fair employment regulator. More recently, employees after published a bombshell report on Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick’s handling of the crisis. That article implicated Kotick in the mistreatment that has characterized the company’s work culture for years. As part of that protest, thousands of Activision Blizzard employees .

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Activision Blizzard workers walk out and demand CEO Bobby Kotick’s resignation

Employees at Activision Blizzard are calling for the resignation of CEO Bobby Kotick following new revelations into the role he may have played in creating the toxic workplace culture that has mired the company in controversy. On Tuesday,  published a comprehensive report on Kotick’s handling of the sexual harassment lawsuit California’s Employment (DFEH) filed against the publisher in July. In short, the outlet claims Kotick not only knew about many of the worst instances of abuse at the company, but in some cases, he may have also acted to protect employees accused of harassment.

“We have instituted our own Zero Tolerance Policy,” Activision Blizzard employee advocacy group A Better ABK on Twitter after the report came out. “We will not be silenced until Bobby Kotick has been replaced as CEO and continue to hold our original demand for Third-Party review by an employee-chosen source.” The group plans to stage a walkout today.

The claims reported by The Journal are extensive and numerous, but a handful stand out. According to documents obtained by the outlet, Kotick penned the now-infamous Frances Townsend, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Activision Blizzard, sent to employees after DFEH filed its lawsuit. In that message, the company said the complaint presented “a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old and out of context stories — some from more than a decade ago.” The response drew the ire of many Blizzard employees, who said it was “.”

The report also provides insight into the . One month after her , Blizzard’s first female leader reportedly sent an email to the company’s legal team in which she said she wasn’t convinced Activision Blizzard would turn its culture around. Referencing a moment earlier in her career at the company, she says in the email, “I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against.”

Elsewhere, the report describes an episode involving Dan Bunting, one of the heads of Activision’s Treyarch studio. In 2017, Bunting was reportedly accused of sexually harassing a female employee. Following an internal investigation, Activision’s HR department recommended he be fired, but Kotick reportedly intervened to keep him at the company.

A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard disputed The Journal’s reporting. The company’s full statement reads as follows:

We are disappointed in the Wall Street Journal’s report, which presents a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO. Instances of sexual misconduct that were brought to his attention were acted upon. The WSJ ignores important changes underway to make this the industry’s most welcoming and inclusive workplace and it fails to account for the efforts of thousands of employees who work hard every day to live up to their — and our — values. The constant desire to be better has always set this company apart. Which is why, at Mr. Kotick’s direction, we have made significant improvements, including a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate conduct. And it is why we are moving forward with unwavering focus, speed, and resources to continue increasing diversity across our company and industry and to ensure that every employee comes to work feeling valued, safe, respected, and inspired. We will not stop until we have the best workplace for our team.

The company also commented on the impending walkout. “We are fully committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and rewarding environment for all of our employees around the world. We support their right to express their opinions and concerns in a safe and respectful manner, without fear of retaliation,” a spokesperson for Activision Blizzard told Engadget.

Amid the unrest at Activision Blizzard, Kotick has presented himself as an ally of the studio’s employees. “Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone-deaf,” he said in an he sent after the Townsend message. In that same message, he claimed he would take “swift action” to create a safe and inclusive working environment. When Kotick later announced the company’s new , he said he would take a massive pay cut until Activision Blizzard’s board of directors felt he had met the diversity and safety goals he outlined.

Even after today’s report, it’s hard to see Kotick resigning. He has been with Activision since the early 1990s, and he was the architect of the 2008 merger that created Activision Blizzard. The company’s board of directors has also said it “remains confident” in his leadership. 

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FlyFin offers AI-based tax app aimed at freelancers, gig workers

Wouldn’t it be cool to have an app always running silently in the background — calculating and updating your tax deductions, credits, and payment responsibilities 24/7 — so that when tax time rolls around, all you need to do is push a button, have everything totaled, and ready to send to the IRS?

What a burden off one’s shoulders that would be. And, yes, that app is here.

Startup FlyFin’s new AI-powered mobile tax app launched today  and is aimed primarily at the 70 million freelancers, gig workers, and self-employed in the U.S., although it would work for anyone. This fintech cloud-service provider is dead set on disrupting the market for individual tax preparation and filing, which hasn’t encountered anything like this previously.

This new AI tax engine replaces the self-employed and freelancers’ hassles with simplicity and money savings, Singh said. It handles 95% of the work through smart AI and ML technology, then adds the human expertise of real CPAs who review and ensure 100% accuracy, Singh said.

How it works for users

Users simply download the app and link their accounts to start tracking expenses. FlyFin’s AI engine automatically scans expense accounts daily to suggest which category to classify the expense based on profession. FlyFin’s AI and CPAs then find all possible tax deductions. Users also have access to the domain expertise of the company’s full-time tax CPAs, who review each individual’s tax information and provide expert help to maximize savings. Users then have the option to file their taxes with FlyFin’s CPAs, who ensure accurate tax review and preparation, or can export their data in an IRS-ready format, Singh said

As part of its launch, FlyFin also introduced additional services bundled into its plans. They are:

  • Comprehensive tax report: An in-depth analysis and report produced by analyzing all the user’s expenses to figure all the areas and specific deductions that they can take to maximize their tax savings. The custom tax report is generated with the help of AI and entirely reviewable by CPAs. The average value for a service like this is $499, but FlyFin will provide it free for subscribers opting for standard and premium plans, Singh said.
  • Full audit insurance: This insurance provides comprehensive management of any IRS or state tax notice or “audit” requesting to review a tax filing. FlyFin’s CPA team will review, research, respond and represent a user with the IRS from start to finish. This guarantee is typically a $150 value that standard and premium subscribers receive for free, Singh said.

How it works under the hood

For IT managers, software architects, and engineers who are interested in understanding how FlyFin’s inside tech works, here are some data points.

VentureBeat: What AI and ML tools are you using specifically?

FlyFin: We use a variety of AI/ML & NLP tools & libraries such as Tensorflow, NLTK, Spacy, etc.

VentureBeat: Are you using models and algorithms out of a box — for example, from DataRobot or other sources?

FlyFin: Our models are both proprietary and out of the box.  Our problems are specific to finance, accounting and tax and therefore we can’t just use generalized language-based models.

VentureBeat: What cloud service are you using mainly?

FlyFin: We use AWS & Azure.

VentureBeat: If you are using AWS and Azure, does that mean you’re using a lot of the AI workflow tools that come with those services, for example, AWS’s Sagemaker?

FlyFin: Not exactly.  We use a lot of AWS services, but for AI we use a combination of in-house and other platforms for specific problems.

VentureBeat: How much do you do yourselves?

FlyFin: We do extensive custom work, but have built our IP on top of lots of open source building blocks.

VentureBeat: How are you “labeling” data for the ML and AI workflows?

FlyFin: We have in-house labelers and processes to handle our information pipeline.

VentureBeat: Can you talk about how much data you are processing?

FlyFin: The problem is a very large and dynamic one, and our models have processed hundreds of millions of data points thus far, which is a very significant achievement for our industry.

FlyFin aims to disrupt the $23 billion individual tax preparation market in the U.S., Singh said. The pandemic has permanently altered businesses adapting to remote work, accelerating their plans to hire more freelancers. The most common type of freelance work is in skilled services, with 45% of freelancers providing programming, marketing, and other consulting work, according to an Upwork 2019 report.

In 2007, Singh co-founded Spock, the market’s first people search engine and early adopter of AI, indexing over 1 billion people and representing more than 1.5 trillion data records. He has founded or funded several companies in Silicon Valley and India.

FlyFin offers three plans (basic, standard, and premium) that vary in service and features provided, with pricing starting at $7, $16, and $29, respectively. For iPhone or iPad users, the app requires iOS 11.0 or later and can be downloaded here. A desktop version is also available for Macs with an Apple M1 chip. Android users can download FlyFin’s app here.

A survey by IPX 1031 reported that more than 33% of all tax filers wait until the last minute to tackle their taxes, with millennials procrastinating the most. Why? Tax prep is painful, complicated, confusing, and overwhelming. In the next five years, researcher Statista reported, freelancing will comprise approximately 51% (or 86.5 million) of the U.S. workforce.

“All of us that have itemized tax deductions — you know, it’s complicated,” FlyFin CEO and founder Jaideep Singh told VentureBeat. “It still takes me a whole weekend to put together all my expenses in the spreadsheet, find my receipts, download stuff from AMEX and CapitalOne, BofA, and all that stuff. And I realized that this is a real pain point.

“But the penny really dropped for me when I realized the entire creator economy, all the youngsters out of college, 50% of Gen Z and millennials, all have some kind of side gig or are independently employed, whether they’re doing an Uber or the white-collar workers being designers and software engineers. They’ve got some side hustle and they’re making money. So I realized that you all have to schedule C’s on their 1040s, and that’s a real pain.”



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Canon put AI cameras in its Chinese offices that only let smiling workers inside

Tech company Canon has come up with a downright dystopic way to tackle the problem of workplace morale: it’s installed cameras with AI-enabled “smile recognition” technology in the offices of its Chinese subsidiary Canon Information Technology. The cameras only let smiling workers enter rooms or book meetings, ensuring that every employee is definitely, 100 percent happy all the time.

This depressing tale was highlighted in a report from The Financial Times on how Chinese companies are surveilling employees to an unsettling degree with the help of AI and algorithms. Firms are monitoring which programs employees use on their computers to gauge their productivity; using CCTV cameras to measure how long they take on their lunch break; and even tracking their movements outside the office using mobile apps.

As the King’s College London academic Nick Srnicek told the FT: “Workers are not being replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Instead, the management is being sort of augmented by these technologies […] Technologies are increasing the pace for people who work with machines instead of the other way around, just like what happened during the industrial revolution in the 18th century.”

Canon Information Technology actually announced its “smile recognition” cameras last year as part of a suite of workplace management tools, but the technology doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention. Indeed, the fact it passed under the radar is a good illustration of just how common surveillance tools like this are becoming — and not just in China.

Although readers in the West sometimes have a tendency to dismiss the sort of surveillance described by the FT as a foreign phenomena, countries like the US and UK are just as culpable. Amazon is perhaps the prime example of this dynamic: it’s known for squeezing every ounce of effort from its warehouse workers at the expense of their health, and even ranking their productivity using algorithms before firing those at the bottom of the scale.

Such modern-day Taylorism is not restricted to blue collar jobs, either: many modern software suites like Microsoft 365 come with built-in surveillance tools. And with more people working from home because of the pandemic, more companies are deploying these features for fear of losing control over their workers. (Or, for a slightly more cynical read: they’ve always wanted to use these tools and the pandemic provides a handy pretext.)

In other words: AI-enabled smile recognition cameras are in many ways the least dangerous types of surveillance technology. They have the benefit of being obvious. Other systems of control are much more subtle, and probably coming to an office near you sometime soon.

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Tech News

Slack’s new Huddles feature adds casual voice chats for remote workers

Slack, the robust chat-based service popular with remote working teams and large companies, has added a new feature called Huddles. With this feature, users are able to ‘huddle’ with one or more coworkers in a voice chat, imitating the kind of conversations you may have previously had by heading over to someone’s office or cubicle to talk in person.

Many companies are transitioning to remote workflows, meaning teams of people who used to share the same office space now find themselves working from their home offices, bedrooms, and the local Starbucks. This is largely fine for many types of work but does require the right tools to facilitate communication without hassle.

Slack is one popular solution to this issue, allowing teams to create channels, message each other, share files, use commands with third-party services, and more. The new Huddles feature expands this by adding casual voice chat into the mix, the same kind you may have enjoyed in the office.

The new functionality is similar to the voice chat feature offered on Discord; users simply turn on the Huddles feature for the channel, then join a coworker or existing Huddle to participate. The feature includes the option of sharing your screen, which will make it easier to get help with an issue or get input on a project.

Huddles can be started in DMs, as well, for those times you need your conversations to stay limited to one person. If the Huddle is in a channel, anyone who is in that channel can pop into the conversation similar to the way they’d be able to overhear your conversation in a physical workplace. The feature is rolling out now to paid teams.

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Tech News

Amazon changes its policy on drug testing US workers for marijuana

Amazon says that with only certain exceptions, it will now treat marijuana use the same as alcohol and will stop testing its employees for the substance as part of its drug testing policy. This change will apply to workers in the US in light of ‘where state laws are moving,’ according to Amazon, which says the change won’t apply to workers in positions regulated by the Transportation Department.

Amazon announced some changes directed at its US employees on Tuesday, stating that it will make some adjustments to its Time off Task policy, namely that it will average it over a longer time period to get back to the spirit of the program. The company made these announcements with its goal of being “Earth’s best employer” and “Earth’s safest place to work.”

According to the company, its Time off Task policy was primarily made with the goal of determining whether there’s an issue with the tools employees use, stating that identifying underperforming workers is its ‘secondary’ purpose.

The change follows criticism that included allegations from workers who claimed the Time off Task policy has resulted in things like skipping bathroom breaks or avoiding first aid over worries about being disciplined for staying off task too long. Amazon was recently back in the news cycle over claims that some employees have resorted to using pee bottles.

As well, Amazon says it is revising its drug testing policy for most US workers, saying in a recent blog post:

We will no longer include marijuana in our comprehensive drug screening program for any positions not regulated by the Department of Transportation, and will instead treat it the same as alcohol use.

The company notes that it will perform impairment checks during the job, however, and that both marijuana and alcohol will be tested for following any incidents. It is unclear how the company plans to determine whether a worker who consumes cannabis was impaired on the job, however — marijuana notoriously stays in one’s system far beyond the duration of its psychoactive effects, meaning someone can test positive for the drug without any impairment.

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Blue Prism 7 shifts focus from RPA to programmable digital workers

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Blue Prism, a pioneer provider of automation tools, announced a major overhaul last week as part of Blue Prism Version 7, which supports a new digital worker architecture and deeper cloud integration. This move highlights the company’s transition beyond robotic process automation (RPA) into the anticipated larger market for intelligent process automation tools.

The company saw 46% growth overall last year and 147% growth in demand for Blue Prism Cloud, its SaaS product.

“Scaling intelligent automation within the cloud and enabling increased demand will be the ultimate differentiator in a year of significant growth for the market,” Blue Prism CEO and chair Jason Kingdon told VentureBeat.

While other RPA vendors have aimed to improve the technical characteristics of RPA infrastructure, Blue Prism has focused on improving the programmability, manageability, and integration of RPA infrastructure.

Technical infrastructure efforts are important, as RPA’s original focus on making it easier to simulate user interaction with applications often incurred infrastructure scaling liabilities. Focus is shifting, however, as the major RPA vendors explore different approaches to scaling people’s ability to quickly create new automations with appropriate guardrails. That is key to Blue Prism’s recent efforts.

RPA puzzle: Task versus process

A pointed criticism of traditional approaches to RPA — despite what the name implies — has centered around their focus on automating tasks rather than processes.

“We looked at how to automate the process of programming not just tasks, but an entire digital workforce end-to-end, and that guided our redesign of Blue Prism’s platform for V7,” Kingdon said.

“Rather than in a bot constrained on every desktop, the future of RPA and intelligent automation is in centralized cloud platforms that seamlessly interconnect with all business systems, regardless of where or how they are deployed: on-prem, hybrid, or cloud.”

The company has also been shifting its description of these automations from “bots” to “digital workers.” This is not just a semantic revision. A traditional bot is a desktop automation that essentially copies and pastes data between apps. Blue Prism’s notion of a network of digital workers connotes more.

Blue Prism also made major improvements to Blue Prism Capture, its task capture tool. It uses machine vision to auto-generate screenshots, step descriptions, process data, and process flows from a process owner’s demonstration of an existing process.

A process expert further refines this into a process definition document (PDD) that is ready for developers. Kingdon estimates that this new implementation can reduce the time to produce a PDD by 25%, and he believes it can reduce this time 75% by the end of 2021.

Deeper cloud integration

Another key innovation is the release of the new Blue Prism Service Assist, which provides deeper integration into native AWS services like Amazon Connect (call center) and ElastiCache (data sharing). Blue Prism took a thoughtful approach around an architecture that could improve various call center workflows through a combination of attended and unattended automation.

Telefonica Spain used Service Assist to handle 3 times as many calls and reduce the average handling time by 80%.

To date, most RPA applications have focused on unattended automations running in the background. In contrast, attended automation focuses on how to run processes that augment human agents engaged with a customer. Service Assist makes it easier to multitask many digital workers in parallel in order to process work more quickly. It uses a centralized queue that intelligently orchestrates work across the digital workers, multiple inbound channels (calls, IVR, chatbots, and webforms), and systems of record or engagement (CRM, ERP, and ITSM).

One of the key innovations underneath this networked worker approach is a direct integration between AWS ElastiCache-based digital workers completing tasks in parallel and other AWS services. This makes it easier to kick off different processes simultaneously and coordinate communication through ElastiCache.

These data transfers also integrate with AWS’ own compliance tools to ensure each digital worker has visibility into the exact level of data required for efficient task completion, without creating consumption issues across the cloud. These and other updates provide a view of the path development may take as RPA evolves into intelligent process automation.


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Google workers announce plans to unionize

A group of Google workers have announced plans to unionize with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The Alphabet Workers Union will be open to all employees and contractors at Google’s parent company. Its goal will be to tackle ongoing issues like pay disparity, retaliation, and controversial government contracts.

“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” said Nicki Anselmo, a Google program manager. “From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively.”

Google’s work on Project Maven, an effort to use AI to improve targeted drone strikes, sparked protests among employees who saw the work as unethical. In 2018, the company decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon. The company also ended its forced arbitration policy after 20,000 workers staged a walkout to protest former executive Andy Rubin getting a $90 million exit package after he was credibly accused of sexual harassment.

Now that the union effort is public, organizers will likely launch a series of campaigns to rally votes from Google workers. Prior to the announcement, about 230 Google employees and contractors had signed cards in support of the union.

Arranged as a members-only union, the new organization won’t seek collective bargaining rights to negotiate a new contract with the company. Instead, the Alphabet Workers Union will only represent employees who voluntarily join, as reported by the New York Times. That structure will also allow it to represent all employees who seek to participate — including temps, vendors, and contractors (known internally as TVCs) who would be excluded by labor law from conventional collective bargaining.

Google contractors have long complained about their unequal treatment compared to full-time staff. While they make up the majority of Google’s workforce, they often lack the benefits of salaried employees. In 2019, roughly 80 Google contractors in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers union.

The Alphabet Workers Union plans to unionize with CWA Local 1400, which represents workers in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and California.

The news comes one month after the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint alleging Google illegally fired two workers who were organizing employee protests. The employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, were organizing against the company’s decision to work with IRI Consultants, a firm famous for its anti-union efforts.

It also follows the firing of prominent AI ethicist Timnit Gebru in December. In a press release announcing the union, the Alphabet Workers Union wrote: “The firing has caused outrage from thousands of us, including Black and Brown workers who are heartbroken by the company’s actions and unsure of their future at Google.”

Earlier this year, employees at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted to unionize with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, as reported by NBC. It was the first time white-collar employees in the tech industry had unionized.

Google employees who decide to join are committing one percent of their annual compensation to the union. The money will go toward paying legal fees and organizing staff.

In a statement emailed to The Verge, Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, said: “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Updated 8:53AM ET: Added Google statement and additional clarity on AWU’s members-only status.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Google employees would begin paying one percent of their annual compensation to the union. We regret the error.

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Bad software sent postal workers to jail, because no one wanted to admit it could be wrong

For the past 20 years UK Post Office employees have been dealing with a piece of software called Horizon, which had a fatal flaw: bugs that made it look like employees stole tens of thousands of British pounds. This led to some local postmasters being convicted of crimes, even being sent to prison, because the Post Office doggedly insisted the software could be trusted. After fighting for decades, 39 people are finally having their convictions overturned, after what is reportedly the largest miscarriage of justice that the UK has ever seen.

The impact on these employees has been vast: according to the BBC, some have lost marriages or time with their children. Talking to the BBC, Janet Skinner said that she was taken away from her two kids for nine months when she was imprisoned, after the software showed a £59,000 shortfall. She also says she lost a job offer because of her criminal conviction. The time she and others like her spent in jail can’t be bought back, and it happened because software was taken at its word.

According to the BBC, another woman, who swore she was innocent, was sent to prison for theft while she was pregnant. One man reportedly died by suicide after the computer system showed that he had lost almost £100,000. Within a few months, his replacement also faced losses due to discrepancies from the software.

Horizon was made by Japanese company Fujitsu, and information from it was used to prosecute 736 Post Office employees between 2000 and 2014, some of whom ended up going to jail. Bugs in the system would cause it to report that accounts that were under the employees’ control were short — the BBC has reported that some employees even tried to close the gap by remortgaging their homes, or using their own money.

It does seem like the nightmare for the employees may be coming to an end. The 39 who had their convictions overturned are following another six who were cleared of wrongdoing back in December. The Post Office has also been working on financially compensating other employees who were caught up by the software.

In 2019 the Post Office settled with 555 claimants and paid damages to them, and it’s also set up a system to repay other affected employees. So far, according to the BBC, more than 2,400 claims have been made.

Earlier this month the chief executive of the Post Office said that Horizon would be replaced with a new, cloud-based solution. In the same speech, he said that the Post Office would work with the government to compensate the employees who were affected by Horizon’s inaccuracies.

The UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson also weighed in today, calling the original convictions “an appalling injustice.”

Some employees seem happy with just a monetary settlement and their names being cleared. But there is also now a campaign group calling for a full public inquiry, and some of the people whose names were cleared today have called for those in charge to be held responsible.

The BBC reported that the Post Office argued the errors couldn’t have been be the fault of the computer system — despite knowing that wasn’t true. There is evidence that the Post Office’s legal department was aware that the software could produce inaccurate results, even before some of the convictions were made. According to the BBC, one of the representatives for the Post Office workers said that the post office “readily accepted the loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people” in its “pursuit of reputation and profit.”

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U.S. banks deploy visual AI tools to monitor customers and workers

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(Reuters) — Several U.S. banks have started deploying camera software that can analyze customer preferences, monitor workers, and spot people sleeping near ATMs, even as the banks remain wary about possible backlash over increased surveillance, more than a dozen banking and technology sources told Reuters.

Previously unreported trials at City National Bank of Florida and JPMorgan Chase, as well as earlier rollouts at banks such as Wells Fargo, offer a rare view into the potential U.S. financial institutions see in facial recognition and related artificial intelligence systems.

Widespread deployment of such visual AI tools in the heavily regulated banking sector would be a significant step toward their becoming mainstream in corporate America.

Bobby Dominguez, chief information security officer at City National, said smartphones that unlock via a face scan have paved the way.

“We’re already leveraging facial recognition on mobile,” he said. “Why not leverage it in the real world?”

City National will begin facial recognition trials early next year to identify customers at teller machines and employees at branches, aiming to replace clunky and less secure authentication measures at its 31 sites, Dominguez said. Eventually, the software could spot people on government watch lists, he said.

JPMorgan said it is “conducting a small test of video analytic technology with a handful of branches in Ohio.” Wells Fargo said it works to prevent fraud but declined to discuss how.

Civil liberties issues loom large. Critics point to arrests of innocent individuals following faulty facial matches, disproportionate use of the systems to monitor lower-income and non-white communities, and the loss of privacy inherent in ubiquitous surveillance.

Portland, Oregon, as of January 1 banned businesses from using facial recognition “in places of public accommodation,” and drugstore chain Rite Aid shut down a nationwide face recognition program last year.

Dominguez and other bank executives said their deployments are sensitive to the issues.

“We’re never going to compromise our clients’ privacy,” Dominguez said. “We’re getting off to an early start on technology already used in other parts of the world and that is rapidly coming to the American banking network.”

Still, the big question among banks, said Fredrik Nilsson, vice president of the Americas at Axis Communications, a top maker of surveillance cameras, is “what will be the potential backlash from the public if we roll this out?”

Walter Connors, chief information officer at Brannen Bank, said the Florida company had discussed but not adopted the technology for its 12 locations. “Anybody walking into a branch expects to be recorded,” Connors said. “But when you’re talking about face recognition, that’s a larger conversation.”

Business intelligence

JPMorgan began assessing the potential of computer vision in 2019 by using internally developed software to analyze archived footage from Chase branches in New York and Ohio, where one of its two Innovation Labs is located, said two people — including former employee Neil Bhandar, who oversaw some of the effort at the time.

Chase aims to gather data to better schedule staff and design branches, three people said, and the bank confirmed. Bhandar said some staff even went to one of Amazon’s cashierless convenience stores to learn about its computer vision system.

Preliminary analysis by Bhandar of branch footage revealed more men would visit before or after lunch, while women tended to arrive mid-afternoon. Bhandar said he also wanted to analyze whether women avoided compact spaces in ATM lobbies because they might bump into someone, but the pandemic halted the plan.

Testing facial recognition to identify clients as they walk into a Chase bank, if they consented to it, has been another possibility considered to enhance their experience, a current employee involved in innovation projects said.

Chase would not be the first to evaluate those uses. A bank in the Northeast recently used computer vision to identify busy areas in branches with newer layouts, an executive there said, speaking on the condition the company not be named.

A Midwestern credit union last year tested facial recognition for client identification at four locations before pausing over cost concerns, a source said.

While Chase developed custom computer vision in-house using components from Google, IBM Watson, and Amazon Web Services, it also considered fully built systems from software startups AnyVision and Vintra, people including Bhandar said. AnyVision declined to comment, and Vintra did not respond to requests for comment.

Chase said it ultimately chose a different vendor, which it declined to name, out of 11 options considered, and began testing that company’s technology at a handful of Ohio locations last October. The effort aims to identify transaction times, how many people leave because of long queues, and which activities are occupying workers.

The bank added that facial, race, and gender recognition are not part of this test.

Using technology to guess customers’ demographics can be problematic, some ethics experts say, because it reinforces stereotypes. Some computer vision programs are also less accurate on people of color, and critics have warned that could lead to unjust outcomes.

Chase has weighed ethical questions. For instance, some internally called for reconsidering planned testing in Harlem, a historically Black neighborhood in New York, because it could be viewed as racially insensitive, two of the people said. The discussions emerged about the same time as a December 2019 New York Times article about racism at Chase branches in Arizona.

Analyzing race was not part of the eventually tabled plans, and the Harlem branch had been selected because it housed the other Chase Innovation Lab for evaluating new technology, the people said, and the bank confirmed.

Targeting the homeless

Security uses for computer vision have long stirred banks’ interest. Wells Fargo used software from the company 3VR over a decade ago to review footage of crimes and see if any faces matched those of known offenders, said John Honovich, who worked at 3VR and founded video surveillance research organization IPVM.

Identiv, which acquired 3VR in 2018, said banking sales were a major focus, but it declined to comment on Wells Fargo.

A security executive at a mid-sized Southern bank, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss secret measures, said over the last 18 months the bank has rolled out video analytics software at nearly every branch to generate alerts when doors to safes, computer server rooms, and other sensitive areas are left open.

Outside, the bank monitors for loitering, such as the recurring issue of people setting up tents under the overhang for drive-through ATMs. Security staff at a control center can play an audio recording politely asking those people to leave, the executive said.

The issue of people sleeping in enclosed ATM lobbies has long been an industry concern, said Brian Karas, vice president of sales at Airship Industries, which develops video management and analytics software.

Systems that detected loitering so staff could activate a siren or strobe light helped increase ATM usage and reduce vandalism for several banks, he said. Though companies did not want to displace people seeking shelter, they felt this was necessary to make ATMs safe and accessible, Karas said.

City National’s Dominguez said the bank’s branches use computer vision to detect suspicious activity outside.

Sales records from 2010 and 2011 reviewed by Reuters show that Bank of America purchased iCVR cameras that were marketed at the time as helping organizations reduce loitering in ATM lobbies. Bank of America said it no longer uses iCVR technology.

The Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank’s interest in computer vision has not abated. Its officials met with AnyVision on multiple occasions in 2019, including at a September conference during which the startup demonstrated how it could identify the face of a Bank of America executive, according to records of the presentation seen by Reuters and a person in attendance.

The bank said, “We are always reviewing potential new technology solutions that are on the market.”


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