Yep, you’re really being watched

January 19, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

I’m really pleased to see a number of articles over the last week or so discussing how surveillance is running rampant in contemporary society. I often feel like I’m some raving paranoid person going on about intrusion on our privacy by CCTV cameras, biometrics, ID cards and so on.

But The Huffington Post and The Times are now raising questions around facial recognition and video surveillance. Thank goodness, finally. But firstly, let’s remind ourselves how the surveillance society abuses our civil rights and privacy, often leading to some horror stories:

  • a 22 year old man committed suicide in the lobby of a Bronx housing project. The CCTV cameras filmed this sad event. Somehow the surveillance footage ended up on the internet – on a pornographic website.  The family who requested the tape were denied. Imagine their shock when they saw the footage on the internet.
  • A US business man filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against a leading hotel chain after finding a hidden camera in a bathroom light fixture (thought you were safe in the privacy of your hotel room? think again!).
  • Police officers zoomed CCTV cams in on nude models involved in an artist’s photo shoot and try to sell the footage. The artist assembled some 1700 volunteers on the banks of the River Tyne in the UK for one of those artistic large group nude shots. CCTV cams installed in the area were allegedly used by two police employees to take close-ups of people and tout the photos in pubs in the Tyneside area.

I could give you many more examples but you get the idea – surveillance systems that are supposed to be used for protection and security are abused.

But now it’s getting a bit more serious. Apple has just released iPhoto09. This is what iPhoto can do:

“... a new feature that allows you to organize your photos based on who’s in them. iPhoto uses face detection to identify faces of people in your photos and face recognition to match faces that look like the same person. That makes it easy for you to add names to your photos. And it helps you find the people you’re looking for — even in the largest photo libraries“.

Sounds innocent. You can find every photo of your cute kids instead of trawling through thousands of photos in your photo library.  Even better, you can upload your tagged photos to Facebook.  As Blogdial points out, what a bonus for the surveillance state – why spend millions on centralised databases when we will do all the work by uploading photos of named faces that are linked to our social connections and their named faces as well. And Lenovo’s new PC will log on users by monitoring their facial patterns. With shades of Minority Report, NEC’s new Eye Flavor is a digital signage system that can determine a person’s age and gender and help advertisers deliver targetted content on the fly.

Because of this enhanced technology, The Huffington Post says quite rightly we are moving into a entirely different era of surveillance. To quote:

We have moved from periodic installation of hard-to-search analog video cameras to the vision of a pervasive, unified system that uses a variety of technologies to track individuals and their movements. These systems reflect the power of the convergence of technologies“.

With sophisticated facial recognition it becomes easier to track the occupants of a car and link the images to the car’s license plate, vehicle registration and GPS technology. A ring of surveillance is our future.

For those of you who continue to bleat “if you have nothing to hide…” consider this situation. You are eating your lunch quietly. A public facial recognition camera, without your knowledge, zooms in on your face and takes a snap. Your image is compared to those of wanted felons and child sex offenders. The police pass your image to the press despite the image not being an exact match (called a false positive). The press swing into action and publish your photo alongside the caption “You can’t hide those lying eyes…”. A woman sees the photo and calls the cops, saying that the photo is that of her ex-husband, wanted on child-neglect charges.  But you are not married and have no children. The cops surround you a few days later. This actually happened to Rob Milliron, a construction worker in Tampa, Florida who was wrongly accused because of a video surveillance system.

Facial recognition software will be less unreliable as techology becomes more sophisticated. We then face the prospect of being monitored in real time. The Times says it better than me:

So let’s understand this: governments and police are planning to implement increasingly accurate surveillance technologies that are unnoticeable, cheap, pervasive, ubiquitous, and searchable in real time. And private businesses, from bars to workplaces, will also operate such systems, whose data trail may well be sold on or leaked to third parties – let’s say, insurance companies that have an interest in knowing about your unhealthy lifestyle, or your ex-spouse who wants evidence that you can afford higher maintenance payments“.

If you are in the US, a new ACLU website will inform you of the location of video surveillance cameras. I continue to be alarmed by all this – it is not the business of Government to spy on its citizens. I fear though that too many of you will say well, what’s the harm? If an intelligent surveillance system can nab child molesters or track down men refusing to pay child support, then that’s a good thing you might say to me.

But you know, consider this: surveillance fosters suspicion. Employers not trusting employees, so they monitor keystrokes and install webcams to ensure staff are not spiriting away with pens and stationery; we use GPS to monitor our spouses to make sure they’re not having an affair and so on. And consider the abuse of video surveillance I started this post off with – what’s to stop police and the Government from racial or behaviourial profiling? What’s to stop insurance companies from monitoring you in real time to ensure you are not smoking, drinking and that you’re exercising? What’s to prevent the people behind surveillance systems from being prone to corruption?

Image source:

Entry filed under: ACLU, Biometric identification, CCTV, Facial recognition, Public webcams, surveillance, Surveillance society.

The city hurts my brain The English language according to Dubya

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve Russell  |  January 19, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Facial recognition and video intelligence doesn’t alwasys have to come with privacy tradeoffs. In fact, at 3VR we use those technologies to actualy enhance privacy, as well as, catch bad guys. (The ACLU ever wrote about it here Since I don’t think anyone would argue that surveillance systems aren’t here to stay, the most important debates today should center around their effective and responsibile use. Ironic as it may be, Face Rec along with other video analysis and search technologies, may turn out to be a key component of making existing surveillance deployments better…and more private.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  January 19, 2009 at 9:39 am

    that’s an interesting point you raise Steve and I do agree – how do we ensure effective use and how could Face Recog actually help to make surveillance more accurate?. Thx for your comment and the link. Good to see someone thinking about the issues who’s involved in the technology.


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