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…