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Russia is so good at facial recognition even US Intel paid them thousands of dollars

Artem Kuharenko’s company won a $25,000 prize in a competition run by the Director of National Intelligence

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(Forbes) – The Russians are pretty good at spear-phishing (ahem) and “highly persuasive, election altering” social media advertising, but they are even better at developing facial recognition systems. So great, in fact, that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Commerce Department, awarded Moscow-based NTechLab with this year’s Face Recognition Challenge Prize.

The first-ever facial recognition competition was devised the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the research and development team run by the Director of National Intelligence. NIST scientists were the ones who chose NTechLab for their algorithms.

“Our job is to be the best and to build the best technology in the world you have to work with the best in the world,” says IARPA’s program manager for the facial recognition prize, Christopher Boehnen. “This is like a Nascar race. There are three different categories of prizes and NTech won two of them. It doesn’t matter where you are from. So long as your country has a relationship with the U.S., you’re welcome to try your luck.” Boehnen was one of the judges.

NTechLab beat out 16 companies.

They won for best one-to-one verification, which would be like using your face to log into your phone. And they won on speed and accuracy.  China’s YITU won for identification accuracy. NTechLab placed second in that category. Other competitors included U.S. based Rank One Computing; Imperial College London; Digital Barriers of the U.K.; Ayonix from Japan; Morpho from France, and Deep Sense of China.

Winners got a plaque recognizing their achievement and a check for $25,000.

With recognition comes the potential for procurement contracts.

“We’ve spoken with at least twenty companies since winning this prize,” says NTechLab’s 27-year-old co-founder Artem Kuharenko. “There’s been a lot of requests from new clients from all over the world, including American companies,” he says.

Artem Kuharenko, co-founder of NTechLab, developed the FindFace facial recognition app in Moscow. His company recently beat out a pool of 16 global players as best algorithm for facial recognition. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Kuharenko’s NTechLab is best known for their FindFace.ru app on the VKontakte social network in Russia. The two-year-old company has around 50 employees, with most of their engineers based in Moscow. NTechLab’s marketing team is based in New York.

NTEchLab sent its FindFace algorithm to the competition. The image dataset had 500 million faces with a reported accuracy of over 80%. NTechLab runs a project for an undisclosed multinational company with one billion faces for searching. Their technology can be used to identify people in real time through closed-circuit video security systems. Moscow uses it, as Bloomberg reported in September, to “spy on its citizens in (the) streets.” (Perhaps our street cams just take candid pictures and send them back to people should they wish to buy them.)

One way NIST judges deciphered who had the better algorithm was to take photos of the same people in different lighting and angles and pump them through the system of roughly two million images to see which algo finds them first, and which ones were more right than wrong.

“It takes less than one second to find you,” says Kuharenko from his home in Moscow.  “We can do 200 searches in a second, and that means looking over images of at least two million people. What is more important is that we can scale the solution to one billion people or two billion people and the search time will still be less than one second,” he says.

Most facial recognition software also finds faces within the same amount of time. Like an Olympic race, it is often the difference of a second or two between competing firms, with accuracy rates ranging from 70% to over 90%.

NIST routinely evaluates facial recognition technologies with a goal of creating standards within the industry. For IARPA, which has a different mandate than NIST, the goal is to find the best facial recognition solutions for American intelligence agencies. In a very real sense, NTechLab’s best-in-class algorithm is a way for IARPA and the 16 intelligence agencies under DNI to imitate it for its own use. Russia’s private sector could be seen helping to improve U.S. spyware.

IARPA is also developing its own facial recognition technologies. Boehnen’s Janus program has grants out to University of Maryland; University of Southern California; and a Woburn, Mass. based company called Systems & Technology Research. Systems engineers there have been using photos and videos of public figures pulled from the internet for their research. The four-year program ends next September.

“We are just a group of scientists at IARPA,” says Boehnen. “Who wins and who loses is not a political decision.”

IARPA program manager Chris Boehnen hands Artem Kuharenko, co-founder of Moscow-based NTechLab, an award for the U.S. government’s first-ever facial recognition tech prize.

Russia has been lambasted by Washington ever since the election of Donald Trump. Russian spearphishing programs compromised a number of computers, including those at the Democratic National Committee, leading to the leak of candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, according to one recent review by Dell’s SecureWorks. The release of those emails is believed to have cost her the election. It is unclear whether these computer system breaches were ordered by the Kremlin.

Trump’s campaign team is under investigation to see if any members colluded with the Russian government to paint Hillary in a negative light. There have been no serious allegations made against Trump, but his former campaign chairman, Paul Mannafort, was indicted on separate issues related to Ukraine. Trump’s ex-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn may face a similar fate, though also unlikely to be directly linked to Russia or the campaign, said a source with knowledge of the investigation who could not speak on the record.

NTechLab’s win is good for Russia. It at least shows that Russia is indeed more than one big gas station, as Senator John McCain likes to call it. IARPA’s recognition also highlights the role Russians play as influential innovators in the global tech community.

“Some companies still don’t like to work with us bad Russian guys,” Kuharenko says, facetiously. “Sometimes all this bias and opinion about Russians is just because of politics, but we are still working with Americans. But still, there are companies that won’t work with us because we are Russians,” he admits. “I’m not very happy about that. It would be much better if we got along.”

The IARPA contest is a reminder of the importance of a global talent pool to maintain America’s tech prowess. High tech firms and specialty research institutions often count on highly skilled foreign engineers to complement their domestic team. While there is no indication that such visas for high skilled foreign workers in science and technology are on the wane, Silicon Valley has continued to lobby in favor of the more notorious H1-B visa, a visa used overwhelmingly by Indian IT outsourcers like Infosys at this time.

When jokingly asked if he wanted an H1-B visa to come to the U.S. and develop an algorithm to assure Hillary Clinton doesn’t run for office again, Kuharenko chuckled and played along. “I think there’s a different Russian company that does that,” he says.

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Russia’s Lukoil Halts Oil Swaps In Venezuela After U.S. Sanctions

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades.

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Via Oilprice.com


Litasco, the international trading arm of Russia’s second-biggest oil producer Lukoil, stopped its oil swaps deals with Venezuela immediately after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry and state oil firm PDVSA, Lukoil’s chief executive Vagit Alekperov said at an investment forum in Russia.

Russia, which stands by Nicolas Maduro in the ongoing Venezuelan political crisis, has vowed to defend its interests in Venezuela—including oil interests—within the international law using “all mechanisms available to us.”

Because of Moscow’s support for Maduro, the international community and market analysts are closely watching the relationship of Russian oil companies with Venezuela.

“Litasco does not work with Venezuela. Before the restrictions were imposed, Litasco had operations to deliver oil products and to sell oil. There were swap operations. Today there are none, since the sanctions were imposed,” Lukoil’s Alekperov said at the Russian Investment Forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Another Russian oil producer, Gazprom Neft, however, does not see major risks for its oil business in Venezuela, the company’s chief executive officer Alexander Dyukov said at the same event.

Gazprom Neft has not supplied and does not supply oil products to Venezuela needed to dilute the thick heavy Venezuelan oil, Dyukov said, noting that the Latin American country hadn’t approached Gazprom Neft for possible supply of oil products for diluents.

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades. Analysts expect that a shortage of diluents could accelerate beginning this month the already steadily declining Venezuelan oil production and exports.

Venezuela’s crude oil production plunged by another 59,000 bpd from December 2018 to stand at just 1.106 million bpd in January 2019, OPEC’s secondary sources figures showed in the cartel’s closely watched Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR) this week.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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Germany Pulls Rank on Macron and American Energy Blackmail

Why France’s Macron, at the last minute, attempted to undermine the project by placing stiffer regulations is a curious question.

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Authored by Finian Cunningham via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


It was billed politely as a Franco-German “compromise” when the EU balked at adopting a Gas Directive which would have undermined the Nord Stream 2 project with Russia.

Nevertheless, diplomatic rhetoric aside, Berlin’s blocking last week of a bid by French President Emmanuel Macron to impose tougher regulations on the Nord Stream 2 gas project was without doubt a firm rebuff to Paris.

Macron wanted to give the EU administration in Brussels greater control over the new pipeline running from Russia to Germany. But in the end the so-called “compromise” was a rejection of Macron’s proposal, reaffirming Germany in the lead role of implementing the Nord Stream 2 route, along with Russia.

The $11-billion, 1,200 kilometer pipeline is due to become operational at the end of this year. Stretching from Russian mainland under the Baltic Sea, it will double the natural gas supply from Russia to Germany. The Berlin government and German industry view the project as a vital boost to the country’s ever-robust economy. Gas supplies will also be distributed from Germany to other European states. Consumers stand to gain from lower prices for heating homes and businesses.

Thus Macron’s belated bizarre meddling was rebuffed by Berlin. A rebuff was given too to the stepped-up pressure from Washington for the Nord Stream 2 project to be cancelled. Last week, US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and two other American envoys wrote an op-ed for Deutsche Welle in which they accused Russia of trying to use “energy blackmail” over Europe’s geopolitics.

Why France’s Macron, at the last minute, attempted to undermine the project by placing stiffer regulations is a curious question. Those extra regulations if they had been imposed would have potentially made the Russian gas supply more expensive. As it turns out, the project will now go-ahead without onerous restrictions.

In short, Macron and the spoiling tactics of Washington, along with EU states hostile to Russia, Poland and the Baltic countries, have been put in their place by Germany and its assertion of national interests of securing economical and abundant gas supply from Russia. Other EU member states that backed Berlin over Nord Stream 2 were Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and the Netherlands.

Washington’s claims that Nord Stream 2 would give Russia leverage of Europe’s security have been echoed by Poland and the Baltic states. Poland, and non-EU Ukraine, stand to lose out billions of dollars-worth of transit fees. Such a move, however, is the prerogative of Germany and Russia to find a more economical mode of supply. Besides, what right has Ukraine to make demands on a bilateral matter that is none of its business? Kiev’s previous bad faith over not paying gas bills to Russia disbars it from reasonable opinion.

Another factor is the inherent Russophobia of Polish and Baltic politicians who view everything concerning Russia through a prism of paranoia.

For the Americans, it is obviously a blatant case of seeking to sell their own much more expensive natural gas to Europe’s giant energy market – in place of Russia’s product. Based on objective market figures, Russia is the most competitive supplier to Europe. The Americans are therefore trying to snatch a strategic business through foul means of propaganda and political pressure. Ironically, the US German ambassador Richard Grenell and the other American envoys wrote in their recent oped: “Europe must retain control of its energy security.”

Last month, Grenell threatened German and European firms involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2 that they could face punitive American sanctions in the future. Evidently, it is the US side that is using “blackmail” to coerce others into submission, not Russia.

Back to Macron. What was he up to in his belated spoiling tactics over Nord Stream 2 and in particular the attempted problems being leveled for Germany if the extra regulations had been imposed?

It seems implausible that Macron was suddenly finding a concern for Poland and the Baltic states in their paranoia over alleged Russian invasion.

Was Macron trying to garner favors from the Trump administration? His initial obsequious rapport with Trump has since faded from the early days of Macron’s presidency in 2017. By doing Washington’s bidding to undermine the Nord Stream 2 project was Macron trying to ingratiate himself again?

The contradictions regarding Macron are replete. He is supposed to be a champion of “ecological causes”. A major factor in Germany’s desire for the Nord Stream 2 project is that the increased gas supply will reduce the European powerhouse’s dependence on dirty fuels of coal, oil and nuclear power. By throwing up regulatory barriers, Macron is making it harder for Germany and Europe to move to cleaner sources of energy that the Russian natural gas represents.

Also, if Macron had succeeded in imposing tougher regulations on the Nord Stream 2 project it would have inevitably increased the costs to consumers for gas bills. This is at a time when his government is being assailed by nationwide Yellow Vest protests over soaring living costs, in particular fuel-price hikes.

A possible factor in Macron’s sabotage bid in Germany’s Nord Stream 2 plans was his chagrin over Berlin’s rejection of his much-vaunted reform agenda for the Eurozone bloc within the EU. Despite Macron’s very public amity with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin has continually knocked back the French leader’s ambitions for reform.

It’s hard to discern what are the real objectives of Macron’s reforms. But they seem to constitute a “banker’s charter”. Many eminent German economists have lambasted his plans, which they say will give more taxpayer-funded bailouts to insolvent banks. They say Macron is trying to move the EU further away from the social-market economy than the bloc already has moved.

What Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker, appears to be striving for is a replication of his pro-rich, anti-worker policies that he is imposing on France, and for these policies to be extended across the Eurozone. Berlin is not buying it, realizing such policies will further erode the social fabric. This could be the main reason why Macron tried to use the Nord Stream 2 project as leverage over Berlin.

In the end, Macron and Washington – albeit working for different objectives – were defeated in their attempts to sabotage the emerging energy trade between Germany, Europe and Russia. Nord Stream 2, as with Russia’s Turk Stream to the south of Europe, seems inevitable by sheer force of natural partnership.

On this note, the Hungarian government’s comments this week were apt. Budapest accused some European leaders and the US of “huge hypocrisy” in decrying association with Russia over energy trade. Macron has previously attended an economics forum in St Petersburg, and yet lately has sought to “blackmail” and disrupt Germany over its trade plans with Russia.

As for the Americans, their arrant hypocrisy is beyond words. As well as trying to dictate to Europe about “market principles” and “energy security”, it was reported this week that Washington is similarly demanding Iraq to end its import of natural gas from neighboring Iran.

Iraq is crippled by electricity and power shortages because of the criminal war that the US waged on that country from 2003-2011 which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Iraq critically needs Iranian gas supplies to keep the lights and fans running. Yet, here we have the US now dictating to Iraq to end its lifeline import of Iranian fuel in order to comply with the Trump administration’s sanctions against Tehran. Iraq is furious at the latest bullying interference by Washington in its sovereign affairs.

The hypocrisy of Washington and elitist politicians like Emmanuel Macron has become too much to stomach. Maybe Germany and others are finally realizing who the charlatans are.

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Russia Readies Own Web To Survive Global Internet Shutdown

Russia is simultaneously building a mass censorship system similar to that seen in China.

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Via Zerohedge


Russian authorities and major telecom operators are preparing to disconnect the country from the world wide web as part of an exercise to prepare for future cyber attacks, Russian news agency RosBiznesKonsalting (RBK) reported last week.

The purpose of the exercise is to develop a threat analysis and provide feedback to a proposed law introduced in the Russian Parliament last December.

The draft law, called the Digital Economy National Program, requires Russian internet service providers (ISP) to guarantee the independence of the Russian Internet (Runet) in the event of a foreign attack to sever the country’s internet from the world wide web.

Telecom operators (MegaFon, VimpelCom (Beeline brand), MTS, Rostelecom and others) will have to introduce the “technical means” to re-route all Russian internet traffic to exchange points approved by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), Russia’s federal executive body responsible for censorship in media and telecommunications.

Roskomnazor will observe all internet traffic and make sure data between Russian users stays within the country’s borders, and is not re-routed abroad.

The exercise is expected to occur before April 1, as Russian authorities have not given exact dates.

The measures described in the law include Russia constructing its internet system, known as Domain Name System (DNS), so it can operate independently from the rest of the world.

Across the world, 12 companies oversee the root servers for DNS and none are located in Russia. However, there are copies of Russia’s core internet address book inside the country suggesting its internet could keep operating if the US cut it off.

Ultimately, the Russian government will require all domestic traffic to pass through government-controlled routing points. These hubs will filter traffic so that data sent between Russians internet users work seamlessly, but any data to foreign computers would be rejected.

Besides protecting its internet, Russia is simultaneously building a mass censorship system similar to that seen in China.

“What Russia wants to do is to bring those router points that handle data entering or exiting the country within its borders and under its control- so that it can then pull up the drawbridge, as it were, to external traffic if it’s under threat – or if it decides to censor what outside information people can access.

China’s firewall is probably the world’s best known censorship tool and it has become a sophisticated operation. It also polices its router points, using filters and blocks on keywords and certain websites and redirecting web traffic so that computers cannot connect to sites the state does not wish Chinese citizens to see,” said BBC.

The Russian government started preparations for creating its internet several years ago. Russian officials expect 95% of all internet traffic locally by next year.

As for Russia unplugging its internet from the rest of the world for an upcoming training exercise, well, this could potentially anger Washington because it is one less sanction that can keep Moscow contained.

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