Surveillance as a technology has been a heart child of mine ever since I was a little kid. Today I am briefly looking into three technologies and their use. I’m keeping this short since it is a difficult topic to write about and English is not my native language. My background for this topic is that the Norwegian government isn’t unfamiliar with surveillance of people – and this has caused much grief and problems. With the government struggling activating the Data Retention Directive tools I find it suitable to mention other kind of surveillance systems on the market. This is also written to show that I am unable to make up my mind if surveillance is good or not.
The three technologies I will look into today are:
- Gunshot locator
- Facial Recognition System
A while ago I read about a fascinating technology in WIRED Magazine that left me with both awe and a fear. Apparently, in the U.S, they’ve got a system that is able to listen to ambient noise and determines if a noise matches a gunshot or not. This tool is capable of determining what kind of gun the noise came from and the location of it. It locates the sound using a triangulation of nearby microphones. If this system picks up a gunshot it will notify the authorities, or the company running an instance of this system, so “they” can responds to the situation.
There seems to be several makers of such tools on the market, but one of the tools is called ShotSpotter Flex (current revision, previously deployed under other version names) is made by a company called SST, formerly ShotSpotter, Inc. It was first deployed in Redwood City, California. According to their company site the system has been successfully used in several crime cases, most notoriously when the FBI caught the Ohio freeway sniper back in 2003. In 2010 this system were sold to both Brazil and the United Kingdom. More information can be found in the “Reference” section of this post.
I would imagine this system being best suited for use in a city. I can’t argue with this. It’s good technology. It’s fascinating that they are able to process the information this way.
Close Circuit Television (CCTV)
CCTV has a broad range of definitions. For this case I will focus on it being a closed circuit system of video cameras with restricted access (ex: P2P) – most used in monitoring crime. The idea behind this is to provide hard evidence of crime. If a crime occur the Police can look at the video stream to determine what happened and who’s involved. These cameras can be remotely operated allowing the operator to zoom and pan – even “rewind” to see events leading up to the crime. Note that this system might not be publicly available – though some are. Like traffic cameras (at least here in Norway). Many documentaries have been made to showcase how CCTV is used in London to prevent crime – many of them are available on Youtube.
Two interesting usages of CCTV is to check license plates and what kind of car that passed by. The first one is great for checking if the vehicle is properly insured and that the driver has paid his/hers taxes. The other usage is great for keeping track of what kind of cars that enters a city – like in London where they allegedly have banned SUV’s entering the inner core. But using this tool they also know who drove the car and when. Sometimes I want to go somewhere to be alone. All alone with no one knowing where I am. It might be in a city or out in the woods. I seriously doubt they’ll put CCTV in the woods, though.
Facial Recognition System (FRS)
FRS/OCR is very interesting. But it doesn’t limit itself to just recognizing faces. The state/government can also adopt it to automatically check license plates. Like what we do in Norway where we got such devices (cameras) mounted in official cars scanning cars passing by. I am going to focus on the face part for this. FRS can be found in many places, from air ports to Facebook. The idea behind it is to make software/hardware tool look at a picture or a video frame and then analyze it. The face characteristics are then matched against, say, criminal records and other registers. The algorithms behind it is complex – and nothing I want to delve into right now.
This technology is closer than you might think. Facebook uses it to tag people in pictures, Google’s Picasa does also. And it works – Picasa is able to find out who’s in a blurred image. You might also find this in your laptop. Some laptops has tools for logging you in based in your face. I’ve done some work with this in the past – the technology isn’t exactly new. Anyhow – I have nothing to fear. I am no criminal. But it makes me shiver a bit that someone is able to view my entire life history by just scanning my face. Uhm … By not looking into Facebook I mean.
Technology has always been about finding new ways, and then combining them with other discoveries to find even new ways. I guess the tools mentioned here will be mashed together to form an even better tool. It might already have. Imagine the gunshot locator notifying the FRC enabled CCTV instance. Boom – me passing by might be dragged into investigation. I can see that this is useful for the Police. But consider what happened earlier this year in Norway. A girl was kidnapped and was later found dead. Two men were suspected and just some hours after their arrest their name got leaked to the press. Within ours the Norwegian common man were ready to lynch them and by looking at all the nut cases in this country I am sure they would have. What would’ve happened if they wasn’t arrested and still their name were leaked? What if this information came from an unsecured CCTV workflow? I suppose Veritas must be involved in the process securing this workflow.
I have not made up my mind regarding this. I do see that crime must be fought – and we need tools to do it. But – with such tools comes a greater responsibility. At least here in Norway surveillance has been done with mixed results. Back in the 60’s the communism were blooming and the government saw this as a threat. If it ever where a treat I don’t know. Agents where deployed throughout the country and phones were tapped. You couldn’t really trust anyone. The government did not just spy on single people, they also spied on entire families. This lasted until the beginning or mid of the 90’s when suddenly the government allowed access to everyone to see their “file”. Most people were shocked by what they read. There were reports telling what clothes they wore, what they ate, what they said and more. Would new technology make it easier to spy on people without people knowing? What would happen if sensitive information got leaked? Ever heard of that site called Wikileaks? Data has to come from somewhere.
I fear that technology might be used to conform people. A tool for keeping people under control. Like what Norway did between the 1960’s and 1990’s. What if the political mindset shifted from red and blue into some other unknown color? Would the political party fear this and stop it using said tools???
All I can say is this:
“I need to see facts. Someone has to secure the technology from abuse and that must be made perfectly visible. The technology must not limit my political views and my rights to display it. Technology must stop terrorism before it happens – but not hinder actions needed to change situations.”
I feel I must explain my last statement a bit further:
The system must hinder me taking unnecessary actions – like terrorism. But it must allow me to collectively bring down the “system” if the “system” goes insane. Like overturning a dictator. Or if Norway gets invaded – again. I would fight for my country if I had to.
- WIRED Magazine article: Shot Spotter
- Discover Magazine article: New Surveillance Program Listens For Gunshots, Get Police There in Minutes
- Safety Dynamics: Sentri Gunshot Detection
- Wikipedia Entry: Gunfire locator
- SST Company: World leader in gunshot detection
- ShotSpotter Twitter feed
- Wikipedia article: CCTV
- London is the Surveillance Society’s biggest test yet
- London’s Surveillance Fails – only 1 crime solved per 1000 cameras
Facial Recognition System
- Wikipedia Article: Facial Recognition System
- PCWorld article: Why Facebooks’s Facial Recognition is Creepy
- HowStuffWorks article: How Facial Recognition Systems Work