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One Million CCTV Cameras for Bangkok

October 2, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Video Surveillance Trend 2012: Smartphone Surveillance

July 23, 2012 Leave a comment

(c) heraldsun.com.au

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.

“Spying Lamp Posts” Not So Scary After All

May 24, 2012 2 comments

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!

Drone Authorizations in the US Include Police Departments

April 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Just to point out this interesting article by EFF about issued drone authorizations to public as well as private institutions in the US. There are no big surprises there with public institutions like DARPA or border patrol as well as many research institutions. Interestingly, a number of police departments are included in the list, suggesting that they already use, or are planning to use, drones in police work.

More Privacy through Maximum Transparency?

March 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Banksy, kissing police man, photo (c) Pete Barr-Watson

I read an interesting interview in Wired online with David Brin, an award-winning sci-fi author who deals in his book The Transparent Society with how privacy in our society might look like in the future. His concept states that it is unrealistic to try to stop surveillance of all parts of our lives and privacy protection laws just create the illusion of privacy. Because by passing privacy laws you restrict access to surveillance information and have to trust powerful authorities to abide to these laws. However, the powerful have no incentive not to break the laws; there is no measure in place to avoid usage of the available data (though I think there are technological solutions to that) – this reminds me of yesterdays story of how the richer you are the more likely your are to break rules.

In order to offer true privacy, Brin states, everyone needs freedom of access to all information, i.e. to level the playing field. If everyone of us has access to all video surveillance feeds, to Facebook data, to phone data, all the time, everyone has the same level of privacy and the freedom to know everything. In a way, this is like everyone is your Facebook friend.

I find this concept fascinating but cannot picture how society might work if this actually happens. It would mean that anyone can spy on their neighbors, that you can never be sure if your neighbor watches you. This would create a state where each of us watches themselves because who knows who is watching (in the sense of Foucaults Panopticon). Further, criminals can use it to determine when to rob a bank or a store or break in a building. For this reason, in our society today, power is not divided equally (and access to information is part of this power). For example, not everyone is allowed to carry guns, but the police is. And this makes sense in a way, otherwise we cannot have an executive branch of our government if it does not have the power to execute laws. So in practice it might be quite difficult to implement Brin’s concept. It would require a complete shift of how our society works today.

By the way, the Wired article is from 1996, where David Brin states that “in a decade, you’ll never know the cameras are there”. Well, clearly 16 years later we still know they are there and CCTV use has not yet exploded the way he might have predicted. However, through new technology, his transparent society already happens in a way, e.g. during protests, where both protesters as well as police use cameras to record events.

Drones in urban environments: New helpers in the streets or surveillance machines?

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Though it does not specifically state that drones can be used for surveillance purposes, German “Bundestag” recently allowed drones as a new classification and part of air traffic if used for traffic purposes (English translation). As heise.de states, this makes way for drones being used in the future not only by security authorities but by private persons and firms as well. This is interesting, since German police have been using drones in recent years already and have been testing new systems. With little success however. Before surveillance and identification of persons, for example at demonstrations, will be possible, some time will go by. This is a good excuse however, to look at UAVs (drones, that is) from a privacy point of view.

UAV use will definitely increase in coming years. It is an active field of research that is being investigated in numerous research projects around the globe. Existing systems are used on a regular basis in wars such as in Afghanistan by US forces. These systems are usually remote-controlled with a human remote pilot flying them, allowing minimum risk when killing people (yes, that’s not very sportsmanlike). In urban areas they have the potential of one day even helping to avoid catastrophes like in Duisburg or detecting riots early. Mirco aerial vehicles (MAV) today are already very small (down to 15cm) and in the future will be as small as insects. They will be piloting themselves and will automatically analyze what is happening on the ground. In several research projects the possibility of collaborating micro-drone swarms, which  stay in the air for a long time or even forever is investigated (check out this interesting publication on MAVs).

In battle-field situations nobody cares about privacy but as soon as they are used in urban, “civilian” applications, privacy becomes an issue.

Of course, any existing laws for spying on persons are valid for UAVs as well. If a helicopter flies over demonstrators or a UAV does not make much difference. The same goes, in principle, for recording video surveillance material or automatically analyzing movement of persons. Today, video surveillance is granted (or not) based on the reason and the place where it is performed. Drones however can change their place of surveillance very fast so new privacy regulations, which consider drones, will be necessary.

Today, persons cannot be identified from such images, so for person surveillance this technology is just not suitable (yet). The horror scenario of UAVs roaming our streets, automatically looking for suspicious persons is not real yet and probably won’t be for some time because it is just not feasible. Applications where drones do make sense are situations where it is too dangerous for humans to perform tasks (such as in war and after catastrophes) and where they can give additional information from a different perspective (for example during football matches, demonstrations and riots).

Today’s technical possibilities (outside the lab) should not be exaggerated, we are not there yet. However, it is good to ask questions about privacy early and that already today these considerations are worked into laws. Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at Stanford, even postulates that drones will eventually INCREASE our personal privacy by being openly visible on the streets and thus triggering a wide-spread privacy debate. Contrary to phone tapping and internet traffic surveillance drones will be a very visible kind of surveillance that will make it much more obvious to discuss privacy issues.

UAVs are a technology to watch, which will make significant technological strides forward in coming years. It will be exciting to see how it and its regulation will develop in the near future.

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