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Apple sued in nightmare case involving teen wrongly accused of shoplifting, driver’s permit used by impostor, and unreliable facial-rec tech

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Apple and its security contractor Security Industry Specialists (SIS) were sued on Friday in Massachusetts as part of a multijurisdictional defamation and malicious prosecution complaint brought on behalf of Ousmane Bah, a New York resident misidentified as a shoplifter multiple times in 2018 and 2019.

The lawsuit contends that Apple and SIS exhibited reckless disregard for the truth by misidentifying Bah as the perpetrator of multiple shoplifting crimes at iStores, leading to his unjustified arrest and to his defamation.

The filing [PDF] in US District Court in Massachusetts aims to revive charges relevant to events in Boston that were excluded from related ongoing litigation in New York. A third related case is being heard in New Jersey.

Apple and SIS have a qualified law enforcement privilege that allows them to err in store security-related accusations and not be sued for it. However, if they exhibit “reckless disregard for the truth” [PDF] – ignoring obvious facts, for example, they lose that privilege.

Among the more startling allegations in the case is that an SIS VP falsely claimed that no SIS employee ever identified Bah to the NYPD or to Apple. The complaint points to an exhibit that’s been submitted as evidence, an email from an SIS employee to an NYPD detective does in fact identify Bah as a shoplifter.

The lawsuit also claims that Apple and SIS selectively deleted video evidence that would have exposed them to potential criminal and civil liability for filing false complaints with the police.

In addition, it asserts Bah’s apprehension was in part due to the application of unreliable facial-recognition technology in the shoplifting incidents in New York.

Bah, who is Black, obtained a New York State temporary learner driver’s permit in March 2018 at the age of 17, when he was an honors student at Bronx Latin Academy, a New York City high school. The document included his height, weight, date of birth, and eye color, but no photograph.

According to the Massachusetts court filing, he had lost the temporary permit by May that year, but had obtained a permanent laminated copy that included his picture.

ID or not ID

In Greenwich, Connecticut in April 2018, Apple allegedly detained an individual for stealing store merchandise and identified the individual as Ousmane Bah based on the examination of the temporary learner’s permit he is said to have had on him – this despite the fact that the ID says, “This temporary document is not to be used for identification purposes.”

The complaint states that the person detained was not Bah, who is 5’7″ but a 6’1″ impostor using the lost temporary learner’s permit. Nonetheless, Apple personnel are said to have retained some video surveillance evidence and published the record with the name “Ousmane Bah” through an online system to make it available to SIS and Apple Stores in the Northeastern US.

On May 24, 2018, SIS, acting in a security capacity for Apple, apprehended and handcuffed the impostor for allegedly stealing merchandise from a Parmus, New Jersey Apple Store. Again, it’s claimed the impostor was carrying Bah’s lost learner’s permit and identified himself as such to authorities or tried to do so – the detained individual is said to have misspelled his stolen name as “Ousama Bah” before correcting the spelling.

Yet the Paramus Police Department apparently did not make any further effort to verify the suspect’s identity, content to accept the identification provided by the SIS employee who apprehended the shoplifter. It’s also claimed SIS told authorities it had video evidence.

“Without probable cause, SIS began linking prior thefts in the region involving the impostor to the Plaintiff,” the complaint says, with SIS representing to police that video of these other thefts, such as one at the Short Hills Apple Store near Millburn, NJ on May 5, 2018.

At this point, it’s alleged that SIS, on behalf of Apple, distributed a “Be on the Lookout” (BOLO) notice with the impostor’s image but the name “Ousmane Bah” as a “known shoplifter.” This is said to have been sent not only to Apple Stores but to police departments in the region.

Then there was the May 31, 2018 theft of a dozen Apple Pencils from an Apple Store in Boston. It’s claimed that an SIS employee in his police report accused Ousmane Bah – who was not in Massachusetts at the time – of the thefts and said there was video to back that up.

According to the complaint, the video depicted the impostor, not Bah, and Apple and SIS had information at the time that their identification of Bah was unreliable and therefore were reckless in their accusation.

In June 2018, Bah appeared in Boston Municipal Court to answer the charges and his attorney asked Apple and SIS to present the video evidence of the thefts to prove his client’s innocence. Apple then told the Suffolk County prosecutor “that the video evidence of the impostor, which would have completely exculpated Ousmane Bah, had been routinely deleted.”

The video from an October 2018 theft misattributed to Bah in Rockaway, New Jersey, was also deleted. Apple and SIS are said to have told the New York court that neither firm has any written policy on video retention.

And as it turned out, the video of the Boston incident turned up eventually – Bah’s attorneys found it during the discovery process. It showed the impostor, not Bah.

On September 18, 2018, the impostor is said to have struck at an Apple Store in Freehold, New Jersey, and escaped. An SIS employee acting on Apple’s behalf again filed a police complaint. The complaint charges that both Apple and SIS knew that identification was unreliable but accused Bah anyway.

The identity of the impostor would be revealed in the following months, the complaint says, when the impostor twice tried to pass himself off as Bah in New York and twice was arrested and booked.

“The arresting officer was able to identify the impostor as Mamadou Barrie, a friend of the Plaintiff, who apparently stole the learner’s permit from the Plaintiff,” the complaint says. “These arrests specifically [noted] that Barrie had pretended to be Ousmane Bah.”

There were more Apple Store thefts in October 2018, the previously mentioned one in Rockaway, New Jersey, and another incident in Trumbull, Connecticut. Apple and SIS again told authorities that Bah was to blame.

Facial failure

Also that month, the impostor is said to have hit an Apple Store in Staten Island, New York. A New York police detective, it’s claimed, published details of the crime and a store video screenshot to a reporting service used by the NYPD called MetrORCA.

The detective subsequently submitted an information request “to the NYPD’s Facial Identification Section (FIS), which identified the photograph as potentially depicting two people, one of whom was purportedly Ousmane Bah – and the other was the actual thief, Mamadou Barrie.”

The complaint further notes that FIS policy is that automated identification is not sufficient to provide the probable cause necessary to make an arrest. Shortly thereafter, an SIS employee saw the MetrORCA bulletin and emailed the NYPD detective to tell him that Apple and SIS had identified Bah as the Staten Island thief.

Around 0400 ET, on November 29, 2018, Paramus Police Department, under a warrant obtained by NYPD, arrested Bah for the New York thefts.

“The warrant issued for Bah’s arrest contained the photo of the impostor (now known to be Mamadou Barrie),” the complaint says, adding that “Barrie in no way physically resembles the Plaintiff, other than being Black.”

Despite the inconsistency noted at the time of the arrest, police took him into custody. This was while Bah was still being wrongfully prosecuted in Boston.

At the New York precinct, police recognized that Bah was not the individual in Apple’s images and charges were dropped.

Two days later, on December 1, 2018, SIS employees apprehended the impostor trying to steal merchandise from an Apple Store in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke police forwarded the suspects fingerprints to the FBI’s National Criminal Identification Center and they were identified as belonging to Mamadou Barrie.

Yet two weeks later, Bah received a mailed notice of a warrant from the Freehold County District Court for his arrest for the Freehold theft based on the information provided by Apple and SIS.

Around that time, with an SIS employee appearing in a New Jersey court to press charges against the Cherry Hill, New Jersey thefts, a different individual with the same name “Ousmane Bah,” this one a resident of Willingboro, New Jersey, showed up for the summons. He was not the thief, the complaint says, and the charges against Ousmane Bah from New York were dropped.

Nonetheless, prosecution against Bah continued in multiple states through June 2019.

Presently, the attorneys representing Bah, Daniel Malis and Subhan Tariq, are pursuing lawsuits against Apple and SIS in New York, New Jersey, and now Massachusetts.

Neither Apple nor SIS responded to requests for comment. ®

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Big Brother is still watching you and he goes by the name Facebook | John Naughton

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The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.

The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.

Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.

Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.

Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”

Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.

Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.

You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.

What I’ve been reading

Masters and servants
Between Golem and God: The Future of AI is a beautifully structured essay on the 3 Quarks Daily website.

Dressed for all weathers
How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture is the thesis of an intriguing Aeon essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney.

On the mend
Monopolists Are Winning the Repair Wars is a terrific blog post by Cory Doctorow on the importance of the “right to repair” our own equipment.

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Amazon exec’s husband jailed for two years for insider trading. Yes, with Amazon stock • The Register

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The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.

Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.

Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.

“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.

“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”

The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.

Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.

“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”

Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®

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Stripe rolls out new tax compliance tool for merchants

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Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.

Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.

Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.

The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.

According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.

The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.

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Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.

Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.

“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”

Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.

“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.

Stripe has had a very busy 2021 so far. After raising funding at a $95bn valuation, it has been rolling out more services that go beyond the payments processing the company was originally built on, as well as expanding geographically with a focus on the Middle East.

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