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Pa. taxpayers funded lavish trips for pension reps


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
April 7, 2021
Facial recognition, police data, test results, PSERS travel, synagogue shooter, Senate primary, and how to eat cicadas. Welcome to Wednesday.
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Pennsylvania law enforcement is no stranger to a powerful and equally controversial facial recognition tool that sparked a global debate about the sweeping use of surveillance technology on an unsuspecting populace. 

While the maker of the technology, Clearview AI, has never disclosed the entities that use its facial recognition software, a confidential source gave BuzzFeed News a list of 1,803 agencies and companies whose employees have tried or used the tool. That information was compiled into a searchable database that includes Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies small and large. 

“We are aware that Clearview AI reached out to some personnel and provided them an opportunity to use a demo or trial of their facial recognition software," Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski told BuzzFeed. "Upon discovery, PSP notified personnel to cease use of the software.” 

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. 

THE CONTEXT: Simply put, Clearview AI's technology works by endlessly scraping online sources like social media accounts — including yours, quite possibly — to match photos of unknown faces with photos of known ones. The result is a facial recognition tool with almost omniscient capabilities. (CNN has a good video demonstration here.)

The dystopian technology "blew the future of privacy in America wide open," according to The New York Times, horrifying civil rights advocates and enthralling investigative agencies and governments. 

In Pennsylvania, there is documentation of its use by district attorneys, city police, the state attorney general's office, and more.

Most say these uses were limited trial runs, but BuzzFeed's reporting indicates Clearview AI's reach may extend farther than anyone realized.


"I don’t care whether they’re extenuating. I’m not making a deal with you."

—Judge David Cashman ordering former Allegheny County Councilor Charles McCullough to prison for stealing from an elderly widow
VACCINE UPDATE: Pennsylvania expects its largest shipment yet of COVID-19 vaccine first doses, with 443,310 doses earmarked for the state. Reminder, via ProPublica: COVID-19 vaccines are supposed to be free and available to all Americans regardless of insurance or immigration status. Here's a list of false barriers to watch for. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
» FIGHTING MISINFORMATION: Join Spotlight PA at 5 p.m. April 20 for a conversation and reader Q&A about how partisan groups are masquerading as local news in Pennsylvania and undermining public trust. RSVP FOR FREE

POST IT: Spring is in full bloom in this western Derry Township neighborhood. Thanks, Bob N.! Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
USE OF FORCE: New Jersey has a groundbreaking new website cataloging police use-of-force incidents with officer names and the age, race, and gender of the person the officer used force against, NJ.com reports. In neighboring Pennsylvania, Spotlight PA found a 2020 attempt to better track such incidents here left a lot of transparency to be desired.

TEST SLUMP: Forty-five of Pennsylvania's 67 counties are showing substantial spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said this week, as state health officials look to address a precipitous drop in testing. The Capital-Star reports while new case numbers are up statewide, test numbers are half of what they were in December.

TRAVEL BILLS: Investment staff for Pennsylvania's largest pension fund have run up big taxpayer-funded travel bills, including one investment manager's $15,627 trip to London and hotel stays worth thousands of dollars a night. The Inquirer reports the Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) fund is now changing how it books the trips.

CAPITAL DEFENSE: Lawyers for the gunman who killed 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue want to know what authorities knew about his online activity before the massacre. Attorneys for Robert Bowers say federal prosecutors have refused to turn over the information, which they believe could see Bowers spared from execution, TribLIVE reports. 

SENATE RACE: Montgomery County Commissioner Valerie Arkoosh has joined the Democratic race for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's seat. Arkoosh headed the county's coronavirus response and upped her profile in one of the state's largest political subdivisions, per the Associated Press. Pennsylvania has never had a female U.S. senator. 
'CIVIL RIGHTS MARTYR': Plans to honor civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in her hometown of California, Pa., continue 56 years after her murder by the KKK. Pennsylvania officials rejected a historical marker plan, but advocates are pressing on, telling the Post-Gazette, "She’s too important to ignore.”

LIKE CLOCKWORK: December sunrise would be at 8:19 in Philadelphia and 8:39 in Pittsburgh if a bill passed by the state House on Monday takes effect. The bill makes daylight saving time permanent here, meaning no spring forward or fall back again, USA Today's Capitol Bureau reports.

CRISPY, CRUNCHY: Billions of cicadas are about to rise from the earth and drive earplug stocks through the roof. And while we've never considered eating them before, Bon Appétit certainly has: "They recall the taste and texture of soft-shell crab [...] with subtle overtones of boiled peanuts." 

NAME THAT SMELL: Landfill or sewage plant? A proposed class-action lawsuit over a malodorous Bethlehem landfill was dismissed this week when it was discovered a plaintiff was actually smelling a nearby wastewater treatment plant instead, per The Morning Call.

ON THE WALL: Fourteen new murals popped up in Indiana, Pa., in just two weeks last year, the work of an art residency program responsible for more than 100 public artworks up and down the East Coast. The Indiana team was joined by a film crew that made this video about the project and artistic process
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Nutrition

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Craig W., Susan D., Beth T., Elaine C., Kevin H., Yvette R., Dixie S., Steve K., Jeanette L., Ben S., Irene R., Jill M., Bill C., Neal W., Craig E., Christine M., Mark O., Suzanne S., Patricia R., Carole D., Al M., Hunter T., Kimberly B., Keith F., James B., Bob R., Tish M., Becky C., Jeff M., Jessica K., George S., Carol D., Ann C., Karen W., Linda T., David I., Christine M., Mary Kay M., Margaret A., Joel S., Judith S., Michelle T., Ron R., Daniel M., David W., Elizabeth W., Rick D., Dennis M., George L., Janet C., Myles M., Marsha B., and Linda G.
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