Surveillance devices get smaller… but it’s privacy that vanishes.

I’ve been blogging for a while about miniaturization and the ‘vanishing’ of surveillance devices. This disappearance occurs in many ways, one of which is the incorporation of high-tech surveillance features into objects and devices that we are already used to or their reduction to a size and form factor that is relatively familiar. Two examples coincidentally arrived in my inbox over the last week.

The first was the news that the US Navy has awarded a development contract for binoculars that incorporate three-dimensional face-recognition technology from StereoVision Inc (who may well be the bunch of  California-based face recog people I met at a biometrics industry show a few years back). This supposedly gets round the problems that standard two-dimensional face recognition has dealing with unpredictably mobile crowds of people in natural light (AKA ‘the real world’). The issue I’m highlighting here however is that we don’t expect binoculars to be equipped with face recognition. Binoculars may not be entirely socially acceptable items, and already convey implications of creepy voyeurism when used in urban or domestic situations, however this is something else entirely.

Small terahertz wave scanner being tested by NYPD in January (NYPD_

The second is the extraordinarily rapid ongoing progress towards working handheld terahertz wave technology (a far more effective form of scanning technology than either the backscatter x-ray or millimeter wave systems used in the bulky bodyscanners currently in use at airports). Just four years ago, I noted the theoretical proof that this was possible, and last month, it was revealed that police in New York were testing handheld terahertz wave scanners, (Thruvision from Digital Barriers) which of course people were likening to Star Trek’s tricorders. The idea that the police could perform a virtual strip search on the street without even having to ask is again, a pretty major change, but it’s also the case that the basic technology can be incorporated into standard video camera systems – potentially everyone with a mobile phone camera could be doing this in a few years.

I’m not a technological determinist, but in the context of societies in which suspicion, publicity and exposure are becoming  increasingly socially normative, I have to ask what these technologies and many others like them imply for conventional responses based on ‘privacy’. Privacy by design is pretty much a joke when the sole purpose of such devices is to breach privacy. And control by privacy regulators is based on the ability to know that one is actually under surveillance – when everything can potentially be performing some kind of highly advanced surveillance, how is one able to tell, let alone select which of the constant breaches of privacy is worth challenging? So, do we simply ban the use of certain forms of surveillance technology in public places? How, would this be enforced given that any conventional form factor might or might not contain such technology? And would this simply result in an even more intense asymmetry of the gaze, when the military and the police have such devices, but people are prevented from using them? Do we rely of camouflage, spoofing and disabling techniques and technologies against those who might be seeking to expose us? You can bet the state will not be happy if these become widespread – just look at the police reaction to existing sousveillance and cop-watching initiatives…

Anti-surveillance clothing

I just received notice of a fashion show: not the kind of thing I used to blog here back when I was blogging regularly – hello again BTW, this will be the first post in a revival of this blog, apart from anything else I miss the combination of disciplined regularity and almost random new directions that blogging brings – anyway, the fashion show is by a New York artist, Adam Harvey, who will present various items designed to counter surveillance of different kinds.


There has been a growth in both surveillance and anti-surveillance clothing over the past few years. Back in the 2000s, we saw items like the Bladerunner GPS-enabled jacket – supposedly to enable parents to keep track of their kids but which would probably be more likely to tell them which bus they’d left it on or which friend they’d lent it to – and even earlier, Steve Mann‘s lab had been creating artifacts that combined engineering and art to subvert or reflect surveillance in ways both serious and humorous. More recently we’ve seen anti-surveillance make-up – another art project. But while artists have explored anti-surveillance and sousveillance, the general trend does seem to be towards clothing enabled for surveillance or at least connection into systems which require surveillance of the item or its wearer as part of some augmented reality / ubiquitous computing scenario.

Will Augmented Reality just be really, really boring?

BoingBoing draws my attention to a video produced by London firm, Berg, with the London office of Japanese advertising agency, Dentsu. Cory Doctorow, who posted this one, and who I usually find to be bang on the money, comments that it presents an imagination of ‘Augmented Reality’ that isn’t ‘an advertising hell’. That may be true, but it’s hardly an inspiring vision of the future of such a potentially empowering technology.  For a start, most of what is shown isn’t really ‘AR’ at all, just ways of displaying social media on different kinds of surfaces so you can’t escape from it – and in fact, Berg/Dentsu do term it ‘incidental media’. To me, AR, if it is to be anything useful at all, means a heightened sensory environment, and one that should start with providing ways for those already disadvantaged to experience the city. Bill Mitchell called the last book of his City of Bits trilogy, Me++, and AR should really create a City++. The dreary corporate Berg/Dentsu future isn’t anyway near this, in fact it’s a City–, it’s reality reduced to endless news and personal updates. If it’s not hell, it’s more like a meaningless limbo… I know that many visions of the future go way over the top, but this is so timid and unimaginative, it just makes the future look boring.

Eye See You

An interesting health story carried by the BBC today made me think, as usual, of the other possible surveillance implications. The story is about a new implant that has been developed to aid people with certain kinds of visual disorders. Effectively a digital processor deals with signals passing into the eye and communicates with the brain. This may indeed be a breakthrough for those people, but what it also made me think is how this might be adapted to turn a person into a covert ‘walking camera’: the unit is powered by a battery worn externally by the ear, and this could look like a hearing aid or a music player etc. The wireless connection required to send these internal signals elsewhere is (relatively speaking) no big deal…

This would be a step beyond (or away from) the open and visible eye-cameras employed by Eyetap’s Steve Mann or more recently Rob Spence, who lost an eye and replaced it with an eyeball camera.

Real-time Video Erasure?


Live video erasure demonstrated

There are some reports circulating around the web that researchers from the Technical University of Ilmenau, Germany, have invented an algorithm for unobtrusively erasing objects from live digital surveillance camera footage. Now the possibility of post-hoc manipulation of video has long been known, but the idea that live images could be altered is something new. A device that could trigger such an erasure drove the plot of the superb surveillance technothriller, Whole Wide World, written by Scottish author, Paul McAuley back in 2001, but almost ten years later, reality appears to have caught up with a piece of near-future SF that already felt perilously close.

According to Ray Kurzweil’s blog, the software is being demonstrated as I write at the Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR) in Seoul, although the researchers appear to refer to their invention as ‘diminished reality’. There are links to video on the invention from both there and the university press release (above). The software appears to work by recognised shapes and removing them from the video as the feed comes in and before it reaches any display.

Soviet Leaders in Red Square, 1999
... and with Trotsky removed.

However, neither Kurzweil nor any of the other commenters on this story (e.g. BoingBoing) seem to get the potential seriousness of this development, both for resistance to surveillance and for the credibility of video surveillance: it could be a fantastic tool for privacy, or an equally fantastic tool for social and political control. It’s one thing to be able to manipulate the past (to do what Stalin did to his oppenents and airbrush them out of history -see David King’s excellent book, The Commissar Vanishes), it’s yet another thing to be unsure whether what one is watching on TV or on YouTube is ‘real’ or ‘fake’ or some combination, but it is another thing entirely to be unsure whether the supposedly live images from a surveillance camera are actually real or not…