Condensed CCTV

Video analytics is the thing right now. With so much video information and the limits of human operators, what to do with all that footage? There are numerous answers mostly involving forms of algorithmic movement recognition. From the masses of press releases that come my way every day, I notice one Israeli company (Israel being one of the world leaders in security technology), BriefCam, is marketing a new automated system that not only recognises objects of interest but then condenses hours of video which feature the object of interest into a matter of minutes featuring all the salient points from the whole time, at once. Or according to their own website:

“BriefCam VS Online receives real-time feed from the DVR/NVR and processes data to produce a database that can be called on to create a video summary presentation, on demand.”

I’ve seen the technology at work, but one thing starts to concern me imediately is what is lost by way of this combined footage. Check the video here for example.

The blurb claims that it is ‘easy’ for operators to see something unexpected, yet this is not a ‘real’ image, or in fact it is a hyperreal image, multiple images partly overlaid on what is assumed to be a standardized background. Of course, given the original footage remains available contextual evidence can be sought. However, I do wonder what kind of decisions will result from fast-moving combined footage pre-selected to present to a human viewer… and of course, what exactly it is that the system is programed to recognise and how. It seems that operators of video surveillance systems will increasingly be watching is not reality, but combined, edited highlights, a part-simulated recreation. Jean Baudrillard would be having a quiet chuckle if he could see this…

Facebook face-recognition

Reports are that US users can now use an automated face-recognition function to tag people in photos posted to the site. To make it clear, this is not the already dubious practice of someone else tagging you in a photo, but an automated service – enter a picture and the system will search around identifying and tagging.

As a Facebook engineer is quoted as saying:

“Now if you upload pictures from your cousin’s wedding, we’ll group together pictures of the bride and suggest her name… Instead of typing her name 64 times, all you’ll need to do is click ‘Save’ to tag all of your cousin’s pictures at once.”

Once again, just as with Facebook Places, the privacy implications of this do not appear to have been thought through (or more likely just disregarded) and it’s notable that this has not yet been extended to Canada, where the federal Privacy Commissioner has made it very clear that Facebook cannot unilaterally override privacy laws.

Let’s see how this one plays out, and how much, once again, Facebook has to retrofit privacy settings…

Automation and Imagination

Peter Tu writes over on Collective Imagination, that greater automation might prevent racism and provide for greater privacy in visual surveillance, providing what he calls ‘race-blind glasses’. The argument is not a new one at all, indeed the argument about racism is almost the same proposition advanced by Professor Gary Marx in the mid-90s about the prospects for face-recognition. Unfortunately, Dr Tu does several of the usual things: he argues that ‘the genie is out of the bottle’ on visual surveillance, as if technological development of any kind is an unstoppable linear force that cannot be controlled by human politics; and secondly, seemingly thinking that technologies are somehow separate from the social context in which they are created and used – when of course technologies are profoundly social. Although he is more cautious than some, this still leads to the rather over optimistic conclusion, the same one that has been advanced for over a century now, that technology will solve – or at least make up for – social problems. I’d like to think so. Unfortunately, empirical evidence suggests that the reality will not be so simple. The example Dr Tu gives on the site is one of a simple binary system – a monitor shows humans as white pixels on a black background. There is a line representing the edge of a station platform. It doesn’t matter who the people are or their race or intent – if they transgress the line, the alarm sounds, the situation can be dealt with. This is what Michalis Lianos refers to as an Automated Socio-Technical Environment (ASTE). Of course these simple systems are profoundly stupid in a way that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ disguises and the binary can hinder as much as it can help in many situations. More complex recognition systems are needed if one wants to tell one person from another or identify ‘intent’, and it is here that all those human social problems return with a vengeance. Research on face-recognition systems, for example, has shown that prejudices can get embedded within programs as much as priorities, in other words the politics of identification and recognition (and all the messiness that this entails) shifts into the code, where it is almost impossible for non-programmers (and often even programmers themselves) to see. And what better justification for the expression of racism can there be that a suspect has been unarguably ‘recognised’ by a machine? ‘Nothing to do with me, son, the computer says you’re guilty…’ And the idea that ‘intent’ can be in any way determined by superficial visualisation is supported by very little evidence which is far from convincing, and yet techno-optimist (and apparently socio-pessimist) researchers push ahead with the promotion of the idea that computer-aided analysis of ‘microexpressions’ will help tell a terrorist from a tourist. And don’t get me started on MRI…

I hope our genuine human ‘collective imagination’ can do rather better than this.

Surveillance and the Recession

In the editorial of the latest issue of Surveillance & Society, I speculated that that the global recession would lead to surveillance and security coming up against the demands of capital to flow (i.e. as margins get squeezed, things like complex border controls and expensive monitoring equipment become more obvious costs). This was prompted by news that in the UK, some Local Authorities were laying off staff employed to monitor cameras and leaving their control rooms empty.

However an article in the Boston Globe today says different. The piece in the business section claims that – at least in its area of coverage – the recession is proving to be good business for surveillance firms, especially high tech ones. The reasons are basically that both crime and the costs of dealing with it become comparatively larger in lean periods. The article doesn’t entirely contradict my reasoning: organisations in the USA are also starting to wonder about the costs of human monitoring within the organisation, but instead they are installing automated software monitoring or are outsourcing the monitoring to more sophisticated control rooms provided by security companies elsewhere.

Shouting cameras in the UK (The Register)
Shouting cameras in the UK (The Register)

They also note that human patrols are in some case being replaced (or at least they can be replaced – it’s unclear exactly how much of the article is PR for the companies involved and how much is factual reporting) by ‘video patrols’, i.e.: remote monitoring combined with reassuring (or instructive) disembodied voices from speakers attached to cameras. Now, we’ve seen this before in the UK as part of New Labour’s rather ridiculous ‘Respect Zones’ plan, but the calming voice of authority from a camera, now what famous novel does that sound like? Actually if it’s not Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is also rather reminiscent of the ubiquitous voice of Edgar Friendly in that odd (but actually rather effective) combination of action movie and Philip K. Dickian future, Demolition Man. The point is that this is what Bruce Schneier has called the ‘security show’. It doesn’t provide any real security, merely the impression that there might be.

How long will it be before people – not least criminals – start to get cynical about the disembodied voice of authority? This then has the potential to undermine more general confidence in CCTV and technological solutions to crime and fear of crime, and could end by increasing both.

Corrupting automated surveillance

OK, so automated surveillance systems are always right, aren’t they? I mean, they wouldn’t allow systems to be put into place that didn’t work, would they?

Image from t-redspeed system (KRIA)
Image from t-redspeed system (KRIA)

That was probably the attitude of many Italians who were supposedly caught jumping red lights by a new T-redspeed looped-camera system manufactured by KRIA. However, the BBC is reporting today that the system had been rigged by shortening the traffic light sequence, and that hundreds of officials were involved in the scam that earned them a great deal of money.

Now, the advocates of automated surveillance will say that there was nothing wrong with the technology itself, and that may be true in this case, but technologies exist within social systems and, unless you try to remove people altogether or by developing heuristic systems – both of which have their own ethical and practical problems – then these kind of things are always going to happen. It’s something those involved in assessing technologies for public use should think about, but in this case it seems they had thought about it, and their only thought was how much cash they could make…