Recently, a blog post by John Powers caused some excitement and confusion. Powers posted an article stating that New York City’s citi bikes have cameras hidden in them, which film traffic as well as the driver. He even quoted a police commissioner who explained that they are used for catching criminals.
However, as it turns out, the story was fake. Citi bikes do not have cameras hidden inside. But it wouldn’t be surprising and is not unrealistic. Especially, since cameras in cars are becoming more common and even modern light posts are becoming more intelligent. Cameras in bikes would help investigate traffic accidents. However, I doubt that they would be useful for anything else and just for this purpose the investment would probably be too high.
A work during a film festival in Stuttgart / Germany a few years back offered another interesting idea for countersurveillance. The device called I-R A.S.C. basicly consists of a headband and infrared LEDs. The headband can be worn in public like any other accessory. But since the LEDs work in the infrared range of the light spectrum, humans do not see the light it is emitting. However, video surveillance cameras, which work with IR filters during the night, are blinded and the face of the person wearing it is not recorded. This is a surprisingly simple yet effective solution if one would not like to be recorded by a camera. Please note that during the day probably most cameras are in day mode and do not work with IR light. So don’t get too comfortable.
In the “fight” against video surveillance, a new type of real-world game was recently invented in Berlin/Germany: Camover. And the rules are quite straight forward: Destroying as many video surveillance cameras as possible, filming the act and uploading it to YouTube. While not required, it is recommended to conceal your identity while filming. The game ends on 19 February; the day the 16th European Police Congress starts in Berlin (Anonymous Austria initiated a similar operation recently as well). One might think of this game as a valid method to fight suppression, surveillance and intrusion into our privacy. However, I think it should be seen as what it is: Pure vandalism, which will not change a thing. The cameras will be replaced with new, state-of-the-art megapixel cameras. In the end, it is we, the tax payers, who will have to pay for the damage done. Video surveillance in public is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if we look at some recent “success stories” in Austria, where crimes were solved using video surveillance. And I know of not one case, where video surveillance in the public has been abused (yet). Having said that, making sure that abuse is not possible and that our right to privacy is not tampered with, is a main concern of mine. This can for example be achieved by creating feasible laws and by new technology, which has been built with privacy by design in mind. But destroying cameras is definitely no solution.
- This Game Awards You Points For Smashing Real World Cameras (kotaku.com)
- Berlin activists create CCTV-smashing street game (boingboing.net)
- Anti-surveillance activists turn smashing CCTV cameras into a competitive game (theverge.com)
- Camover – Fighting the System with Gamification (urbantimes.co)
Following my recent post about the anti-drone hoodie, the work of Asher J. Kohn is worth mentioning. He drafted an architectural concept for an “anti-drone city“, which uses several technological tricks to defend against detection from drones. Towers, which change heat patterns are used to confuse thermal detection systems. Windows made out of LED screens project changing patterns to produce false detections. Displays in the courtyard show QR patterns and fake shadows.
All deflection systems used are meant to confuse completely autonomous military drones to draw attention away from humans. However, as soon as a human is in the loop and looks at the drone’s camera images all this effort is worthless. Further, the concept is targeted at military applications and thus is basically another defence system for war zones.
I believe that anything developed to save human lives is a good effort. But concepts that can protect individuals from urban, every-day drone surveillance are worth thinking of as well. For example, wouldn’t it be interesting to develop a kind of opt-out surveillance system? To define a standard, in which individuals can choose if they want to be seen or not? Similar to location tracking on smart phones. Individuals, who do not want to be tracked would be left out of the image (e.g. by pixelating them or replacing them with an avatar). Of course, this system could be overruled for Police use but it would protect us from private drone surveillance in the future. It would be a good compromise between growing drone usage and the protection of our privacy. I believe, these ideas are worth developing further.
An Independent interview with Andrew Rennison, the UK’s first and just now appointed surveillance commisioner, creates some controversy. One interesting fact about this article is that the UK, the world’s most prominent state when it comes to public surveillance, appointed a surveillance commisioner for the first time. This is a remarkable turning point in thinking about surveillance technology in the UK.
In the interview, Rennison basicly states that video surveillance technology has become so advanced that the UK is turning into a surveillance state. As examples he cites cheap 16 Megapixel cameras and face recognition, which can identity a person from half a mile away with accuracy of over 90%. These provocative and just false facts caused a flaming reaction by IPVM, a popular blog about video surveillance. Face recognition is just not there yet. A system, which I tested myself last week, was just able to identify me from a 5 meters distance after I enrolled in the system and looked straight in the camera. This system used one of the current leading algorithms in face recognition, NEC’s NeoFace.
So no, what Rennison states is just not correct. However, his warnings are valid. Even if we are at least 5 to 10 years away from working face recognition in the crowd, the point will come when technology will be available that can identitfy all persons on public places in real-time and high accuracy. And we have to think before this time about how we want to deal with it. Shouldn’t we expect to be identitfied if we are in a public space? If so, by whom? Of course, we are identified by our (private) cell phone provider all the time already. And with larger and larger international carriers, isn’t this a much bigger problem, which we are facing already today (not mentioning the even larger SmartPhone software procuders Apple & Google)? I for one trust a public authority more than a private firm, of which I do not know by whom it is owned and controlled. I guess the reason why we are more suspicous towards governments is because they control an executive body, which can use force upon someone. But to think that large companies do not have similar power nowadays is just naiv.
In an earlier post I pointed out how ridiculous I find the hysteria around the INDECT project. It just acts as a good excuse for some shallow and wrong Anonymous videos. Further, I guess one has a different view on large-scale research projects after being involved in a few. However, it is interesting to see which other EU research projects are currently in progress. Heise.de compiled a nice list of the biggest ones. So I recommend reading this article (English translation) to get a good overview and also some constructive critical remarks regarding INDECT.
In the latest stage of its one Billion USD worth Next Generation Identification Program, the FBI will deploy free face recognition software nation-wide in the US to law enforcement agencies. Using this software, faces can automatically be compared to a database of close to 13 Million faces. The FBI is stressing that these faces are just mug shots and are not taken from other sources such as social media. Full operational capability of the system is expected in 2014. Of course, there are privacy concerns about this system. Being identified at any time in public places is certainly quite a big intrusion into our personal privacy and freedom and should not be taken lightly.
However, I doubt that the system will work well for public surveillance, at least in the beginning. I just returned from Security Essen, the biggest security trade fair in Europe, and tried various face recognition systems myself. It was once again confirmed that face recognition nowadays works very well for access control (that is for “verification” not “identification”). In this scenario the user wants to be recognized, is voluntarily enrolled in the same system he is recognized with and the system knows which face it should expect. Face recognition in other scenarios and in crowds is much harder and requires very good camera positions and high quality shots of a person, who is enrolled (with various pictures of the face). I do not see this technology being successfully deployed anytime soon in public places and areas where unsuspecting civilians should be recognized. The further development of this project should be observed, especially how the FBI will use the system once it is fully operational.
In an ambitious project (to my knowledge the most ambitious world-wide), Thailand will install one million CCTV cameras in Bangkok in the next three years. Amazingly, this project will only cost 2 Million EUR, which would amount to 2 EUR per camera. This is very unrealistic, to say the least. So how does Thailand plan to finance all these cameras? By requiring residents to pay for this extra protection a monthly fee between 2 and 4 Euros per month.
It will be interesting to see how they plan to make use of these cameras. Currently, there are just vague hints about face recognition and video analysis but no details are given. Obviously, such an amount of cameras cannot be managed manually but automatic analysis can only detect clearly defined events and face recognition is far from anything we see in Enemy of the State or CSI. Without automatic analysis of the videos these cameras are as good as dummy cams. I guess at least privacy won’t be a big issue for them.
Mobile apps for video surveillance applications (“Video Surveillance Management” software) exist for some time and are usually add-ons to video surveillance products. They basically allow viewing video streams on a mobile device. However, the next trend in video surveillance seems to be using smartphones as video surveillance cameras. Obvious applications are as spy-cams or as baby monitors. However, additionally, this further paves the way for broader use of sousveillance (“inverse surveillance”) technology, where everyone watches everyone, thus actually creating more privacy than less (as argued by David Brin). This is certainly an area of technology to watch.
Check our this really well-done app which can be used for many applications (such as letting your girlfriend choose which tea she would like while lying sick in bed): Airbeam.
Not believing everything you read on the Internet is generally good advice and this is just another good example.
In October 2011 Infowars, among many other blogs, reported about new “spying lamp posts” that covertly record videos and audio of citizens on streets and parks and are even able to “talk back” using integrated microphones. They called it “Big Brother on steroids” and something that not even Orwell dreamed of.
Now, the first of these lamp posts are being deployed in several cities in the US and accordingly the blogosphere is raging again, scaring us about secret spying lamp posts. However, instead of just re-blogging this, granted, very nice story, I would like to take it as an example how some things we read on the Internet are just bullshit. It is a good example how someone just read what he/she wanted to read about a product and made a “scandal” out of it. Because if you look at the “incriminating” company video (below this post) or just the company website of the developer Intellistreets there is no mention of people being filmed or otherwise surveilled (their statement following this story is interesting as well). Actually, these lamp posts sound pretty cool, intelligently saving energy and money and providing safety features in case of an incident.
Unfortunately, sometimes people just hear what they want to hear and make a flashy headline. It is important to check at least basic facts before re-blogging such a story. Reporting facts might be more important than a headline, which gets many clicks. Maybe the world is not as bad as many think!