Amazon Alexa allegedly recorded a Portland family’s private conversation and sent the audio to a person in their contact list, KIRO 7 reported. Danielle, who declined to use her last name, said she recently received a call from her husband’s employee, who told her: “Unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked.” The employee said he’d received a recording of a conversation between Danielle and her husband about hardwood floors. Danielle said she contacted an Amazon representative, who apologized profusely but did not explain what led Alexa to record the conversation. “We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future," Amazon said in a statement. The company, which has been selling facial-recognition technology to law enforcement, also stressed it “takes privacy very seriously.”
As the National Rifle Association grows increasingly out of touch with most American gun owners, the organization still claims “more than five million members.” A number of corporations are making membership to the group, which opposes nearly all gun safety legislation, more enticing by partnering with the NRA.
Much like AARP or AAA, the organization promotes its discounts for members as a selling point for why people should join. The “valuable 5-star benefits” promised include not just a subscription to an NRA magazine and a gun-owner liability protection policy but also savings on insurance, identity theft protection, hearing aids, car rentals, moving vans, shipping, and even wine. While some of these perks are provided by in-house subsidiaries, many are offered through corporate partners — including some household names.
After the shooting in Parkland, Florida, the NRA has been the focus of renewed national attention, as the group continues to successfully block any legislation to curb gun violence on the national level. Dallas’ mayor told the NRA Monday that the group will be “met with opposition” if it holds its scheduled May conference in his city. And over the weekend, hundreds of people gathered outside the group’s Virginia headquarters to hold a vigil and protest.
ThinkProgress asked 22 corporations that the NRA says offer incentives to NRA members whether they plan to continue their relationships with the gun lobby.
The rental car company offers NRA members “up to 25% off everyday base rates at participating locations worldwide” as well as “additional program benefits.” According to the company’s website, those benefits include “everyday savings,” “bonus savings,” and “premier travel perks.” A representative for Hertz did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Avis and Budget
The two car rental companies operated by the Avis Budget Group offer NRA members up to 25 percent off base rates. A representative for the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The rental car company offers members an unspecified discount. “NRA members save when you rent from Enterprise Rent-A-Car,” its website says. A representative for Enterprise did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
On a special NRA member discount website, the rental car company says that “NRA members save on everyday low prices.” A representative for Enterprise Holdings, which operates the company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The rental car company offers NRA members“up to 20% off at participating National Car Rental locations.” A representative for Enterprise Holdings, which operates the company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The car buying service advertises on a special NRA member website that “members save an average of $3,383 off MSRP!” A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The preventative health company based in Austin, Texas says on a NRA-specific website that members can “take advantage of affordable discounts.” A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Norton anti-malware software, developed and distributed by Symantec Corporation, offers NRA members discounts on various subscription rates. Members can get $37 off a standard membership, $52 off a deluxe membership, and $62 off a premium membership. A representative for Symantec did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Allied Van Lives
The moving company offers unspecified discounts to NRA members through a special website. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
NorthAmerican Van Lines
The moving company, owned by the same parent company as Allied Van Lines, also offers discounts to NRA members. “It’s a great program,” a customer service representative told ThinkProgress. “We’ve been doing this for many many years for NRA members.”
First National Bank of Omaha
The Nebraska-based bank issues the “official credit card of the NRA.” One version of the Visa card offers five percent back on gas and sporting goods store purchases, while another offers a low intro APR. Both cards offer a $40 bonus, “enough to reimburse your one-year NRA membership!” The site also boasts that the card ensures “legislative action in support of your Second Amendment Rights,” “public education and awareness about the facts of gun ownership,” and “training and safety programs for individuals, families, and the military.” A representative for the bank did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
NRA members receive two months free of SimpliSafe’smonitoring with the purchase of any new home security system. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Starkey Hearing Technologies
The NRA partners with this prominent hearing aid technology company to offer discounted hearing aids and “free consultations” for its members. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Members are encouraged to protect their “privacy and financial security” through a subscription to this privacy protection service, though no discount is specified. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Life Insurance Central
The NRA-endorsed term life company is listed as providing “higher coverage amounts” for members on life insurance policies. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Medical Concierge Network
Unspecified “specialized exclusive benefits” are offered for members who want to join this “personal health advisory service.” The company’s founder, Greg Nassief, told ThinkProgress that he has no comment on the company’s relationship with the NRA, noting that it is not political and that his company has similar relationships “with several entities across all sorts of categories.”
Members are invited to purchase health insurance plans through eHealth’s exchange, though no specific discount is specified. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
NRA members are offered a $14.95 “discounted monthly rate” for this telemedicine service.In an email, the company’s communications director Courtney McLeod told ThinkProgress that “Teladoc is not an NRA partner” and that “they offer our services (access to healthcare), just as they could offer access to any number of consumer products or services.” When ThinkProgress pointed out that the NRA site claims “a specially-discounted group rate for NRA members,” McLeod said the company “does not have a direct relationship with the NRA” and that any group rate was negotiated with a third party.
Members of the NRA’s Business Alliance, a separate program for businesses, receive additional benefits and discounts. These include:
The shipping giant provides up to a 26 percent discount for NRA Business Alliance members via its FedEx Advantage program. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Access to LifeLock Business Solutions, the identity-theft prevention company’s business arm, is listed as a benefit, though no specific discount is specified. A representative for its parent company, Symantec, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Business Alliance members are offered a 30-day free trial of the member management company’s website and membership software. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but in 2013 the company told ThinkProgress that the company permits any lawful group to receive a commission if they sign up as affiliate partners and they “do not pay any fee to the NRA, and their affiliates do not receive any discount on our software.”
In early 2013, weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting, ThinkProgress published a similar list. Since that time, several companies have discontinued their relationships with the pro-gun group. Following a grassroots pressure campaign led by the global advocacy group Avaaz.org, both Best Western and Wyndham hotels stopped offering an NRA discount.
“We did end our discount with the NRA at the end of last year,” Maire Griffin, Wyndham’s vice president of global communications, told ThinkProgress. “We no longer will offer this discount, period.”
A similar pressure campaign by a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups and gun violence prevention organizations began pressuring FedEx to do the same in 2016, but has not yet had success.
This post will be updated as the companies respond to ThinkProgress.
(left:) Test image displayed on computer monitor. (right:) Image captured by EEG and decoded. (credit: Dan Nemrodov et al./eNeuro)
A new technique developed by University of Toronto Scarborough neuroscientists has, for the first time, used EEG detection of brain activity in reconstructing images of what people perceive.
The new technique “could provide a means of communication for people who are unable to verbally communicate,” said Dan Nemrodov, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Assistant Professor Adrian Nestor’s lab at U of T Scarborough. “It could also have forensic uses for law enforcement in gathering eyewitness information on potential suspects, rather than relying on verbal descriptions provided to a sketch artist.”
(left:) EEG electrodes used in the study (photo credit: Ken Jones). (right in red:) The area where the images were detected, the occipital lobe, is the visual processing center of the mammalian brain, containing most of the anatomical region of the visual cortex. (credit: CC/Wikipedia)
For the study, test subjects were shown images of faces while their brain activity was detected by EEG (electroencephalogram) electrodes over the occipital lobe, the visual processing center of the brain. The data was then processed by the researchers, using a technique based on machine learning algorithms that allowed for digitally recreating the image that was in the subject’s mind.
More practical than fMRI for reconstructing brain images
This new technique was pioneered by Nestor, who successfully reconstructed facial images from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data in the past.
According to Nemrodov, techniques like fMRI — which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow — can grab finer details of what’s going on in specific areas of the brain, but EEG has greater practical potential given that it’s more common, portable, and inexpensive by comparison.
While fMRI captures activity at the time scale of seconds, EEG captures activity at the millisecond scale, he says. “So we can see, with very fine detail, how the percept of a face develops in our brain using EEG.” The researchers found that it takes the brain about 120 milliseconds (0.12 seconds) to form a good representation of a face we see, but the important time period for recording starts around 200 milliseconds, Nemrodov says. That’s followed by machine-learning processing to decode the image.*
This study provides validation that EEG has potential for this type of image reconstruction, notes Nemrodov, something many researchers doubted was possible, given its apparent limitations.
Clinical and forensic uses
“The fact we can reconstruct what someone experiences visually based on their brain activity opens up a lot of possibilities,” says Nestor. “It unveils the subjective content of our mind and it provides a way to access, explore, and share the content of our perception, memory, and imagination.”
Work is now underway in Nestor’s lab to test how EEG could be used to reconstruct images from a wider range of objects beyond faces — even to show “what people remember or imagine, or what they want to express,” says Nestor. (A new creative tool?)
The research, which is published (open-access) in the journal eNeuro, was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and by a Connaught New Researcher Award.
* “After we obtain event-related potentials (ERPs) [the measured brain response from a visual sensory event, in this case] — we use a support vector machine (SVM) algorithm to compute pairwise classifications of the visual image identities,” Nemrodov explained to KurzweilAI. “Based on the resulting dissimilarity matrix, we build a face space from which we estimate in a pixel-wise manner the appearance of every individual left-out (to avoid circularity) face. We do it by a linear combination of the classification images plus the origin of the face space.” The method is based on a former study: Nestor, A., Plaut, D. C., & Behrmann, M. (2016). Feature-based face representations and image reconstruction from behavioral and neural data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 25 113: 416-421.
University of Toronto Scarborough | Do you see what I see? Harnessing brain waves can help reconstruct mental images
Nature Video | Reading minds
Abstract of The Neural Dynamics of Facial Identity Processing: insights from EEG-Based Pattern Analysis and Image Reconstruction
Uncovering the neural dynamics of facial identity processing along with its representational basis outlines a major endeavor in the study of visual processing. To this end, here we record human electroencephalography (EEG) data associated with viewing face stimuli; then, we exploit spatiotemporal EEG information to determine the neural correlates of facial identity representations and to reconstruct the appearance of the corresponding stimuli. Our findings indicate that multiple temporal intervals support: facial identity classification, face space estimation, visual feature extraction and image reconstruction. In particular, we note that both classification and reconstruction accuracy peak in the proximity of the N170 component. Further, aggregate data from a larger interval (50-650 ms after stimulus onset) support robust reconstruction results, consistent with the availability of distinct visual information over time. Thus, theoretically, our findings shed light on the time course of face processing while, methodologically, they demonstrate the feasibility of EEG-based image reconstruction.
The largest family tree to date — which includes 13 million people going back 11 generations and 500 years — provides new insights about marriage and death, and it all comes from public data.
The tree was created by a team led by Yaniv Erlich, a Columbia University computer scientist who is also chief science officer at the genealogy company MyHeritage. Erlich’s team downloaded 86 million public profiles from the ancestry site Geni.com (which is owned by MyHeritage). Many small family trees emerged, along with one huge one with 13 million people; about 85 percent are from the Western world. The tree, which is available online, includes (anonymized) data on when and where everyone died. When Erlich’s team analyzed the data to find trends...
The contrast sensitivity function shows how our sensitivity to contrasts is affected by spatial frequency. You can test it using gratings of alternating light and darker shade. Ian Goodfellow has this neat observation:
It’s a graph that makes itself! The image is the raw data, and by interacting with your visual system, you perceive a discontinuity which illustrates the limits of your perception.
Spatial frequency means how often things change in space. High spatial frequency changes means lots of small detail. Spatial frequency is surprisingly important to our visual system – lots of basic features of the visual world, like orientation or motion, are processed first according to which spatial frequency the information is available at.
Spatial frequency is behind the Einstein-Marilyn illusion, whereby you see Albert Einstein if the image is large or close up, and Marilyn Monroe if the image is small / seen from a distance (try it! You’ll have to walk away from your screen to see it change).
Depending on distance, different spatial frequencies are easier to see, and if those spatial frequencies encode different information then you can make a hybrid image which switches as you alter your distance from it.
Spatial frequency is also why, when you’re flying over the ocean, you can see waves which appear not to move. Although you vision is sensitive enough to see the wave, the motion sensitive part of your visual system isn’t as good at the fine spatial frequencies – which creates a natural illusion of static waves.
The contrast sensitivity image at the head of this post varies contrast top to bottom (low to high) and spatial frequency left to right (low to high). The point at which the bars stop looking distinct picks out a ridge which rises (to a maximum at about about 10 cycles per degrees of angle) and then drops off. Where this ridge is will vary depending on your particular visual system and what distance you view the image at. It is the ultimate individualised data visualisation – it picks out the particular sensitivity of your own visual system, in real time. It’s even interactive, instantly adjusting for momentary changes in parameters like brightness!
More on hybrid images (including some neat examples): Oliva, A., Torralba, A., & Schyns, P. G. (2006, July). Hybrid images. In ACM Transactions on Graphics (TOG) (Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 527-532). ACM.