Crowdsourcing Surveillance

Internet Eyes is a U.K. startup designed to crowdsource digital surveillance. People pay a small fee to become a “Viewer.” Once they do, they can log onto the site and view live anonymous feeds from surveillance cameras at retail stores. If they notice someone shoplifting, they can alert the store owner. Viewers get rated on their ability to differentiate real shoplifting from false alarms, can win 1000 pounds if they detect the most shoplifting in some time interval, and otherwise get paid a wage that most likely won’t cover their initial fee.

Although the system has some nod towards privacy, groups like Privacy International oppose the system for fostering a culture of citizen spies. More fundamentally, though, I don’t think the system will work. Internet Eyes is primarily relying on voyeurism to compensate its Viewers. But most of what goes on in a retail store is incredibly boring. Some of it is actually voyeuristic, and very little of it is criminal. The incentives just aren’t there for Viewers to do more than peek, and there’s no obvious way to discouraging them from siding with the shoplifter and just watch the scenario unfold.

This isn’t the first time groups have tried to crowdsource surveillance camera monitoring. Texas’s Virtual Border Patrol tried the same thing: deputizing the general public to monitor the Texas-Mexico border. It ran out of money last year, and was widely criticized as a joke.

This system suffered the same problems as Internet Eyes—not enough incentive to do a good job, boredom because crime is the rare exception—as well as the fact that false alarms were very expensive to deal with.

Both of these systems remind me of the one time this idea was conceptualized correctly. Invented in 2003 by my friend and colleague Jay Walker, US HomeGuard also tried to crowdsource surveillance camera monitoring. But this system focused on one very specific security concern: people in no-mans areas. These are areas between fences at nuclear power plants or oil refineries, border zones, areas around dams and reservoirs, and so on: areas where there should never be anyone.

The idea is that people would register to become “spotters.” They would get paid a decent wage (that and patriotism was the incentive), receive a stream of still photos, and be asked a very simple question: “Is there a person or a vehicle in this picture?” If a spotter clicked “yes,” the photo—and the camera—would be referred to whatever professional response the camera owner had set up.

HomeGuard would monitor the monitors in two ways. One, by sending stored, known, photos to people regularly to verify that they were paying attention. And two, by sending live photos to multiple spotters and correlating the results, to many more monitors if a spotter claimed to have spotted a person or vehicle.

Just knowing that there’s a person or a vehicle in a no-mans area is only the first step in a useful response, and HomeGuard envisioned a bunch of enhancements to the rest of that system. Flagged photos could be sent to the digital phones of patrolling guards, cameras could be controlled remotely by those guards, and speakers in the cameras could issue warnings. Remote citizen spotters were only useful for that first step, looking for a person or a vehicle in a photo that shouldn’t contain any. Only real guards at the site itself could tell an intruder from the occasional maintenance person.

Of course the system isn’t perfect. A would-be infiltrator could sneak past the spotters by holding a bush in front of him, or disguising himself as a vending machine. But it does fill in a gap in what fully automated systems can do, at least until image processing and artificial intelligence get significantly better.

HomeGuard never got off the ground. There was never any good data about whether spotters were more effective than motion sensors as a first level of defense. But more importantly, Walker says that the politics surrounding homeland security money post-9/11 was just too great to penetrate, and that as an outsider he couldn’t get his ideas heard. Today, probably, the patriotic fervor that gripped so many people post-9/11 has dampened, and he’d probably have to pay his spotters more than he envisioned seven years ago. Still, I thought it was a clever idea then and I still think it’s a clever idea—and it’s an example of how to do surveillance crowdsourcing correctly.

Making the system more general runs into all sorts of problems. An amateur can spot a person or vehicle pretty easily, but is much harder pressed to notice a shoplifter. The privacy implications of showing random people pictures of no-mans lands is minimal, while a busy store is another matter—stores have enough individuality to be identifiable, as do people. Public photo tagging will even allow the process to be automated. And, of course, the normalization of a spy-on-your-neighbor surveillance society where it’s perfectly reasonable to watch each other on cameras just in case one of us does something wrong.

This essay first appeared in ThreatPost.

Posted on November 9, 2010 at 12:59 PM31 Comments


Hamish November 9, 2010 1:39 PM

The security side of Internet Eyes may be bad, but their economics are fine:

“Internet Eyes will reward you for it – at staggering rates ranging from 50 pence for 30 hours hard surveillance work in a month…right up to a whopping £1.50 for 60 hours. And you thought sweatshop labour got a raw deal.

“To top it all, the masterstroke is to make you pay to sign up – £2 a month or £13 for a year (meaning if you fail to win the monthly prize, you have to put in eight and a half 60-hour months before you break even)”

(From )

You can check the quoted figures at

Tim November 9, 2010 2:29 PM

There are already pretty good automated people detectors. E.g. and that does more than just detection, so I don’t see why you wouldn’t just automate it.

Shoplifting is going to be much harder to implement automatically, but I think it would be possible. You could at least find people who have disturbed the shelves and then left without paying. There’s probably be many false positives from people picking things up and then putting them back and deciding not to buy anything.

Gerald Anthro November 9, 2010 2:41 PM

Reverse it, People register, million ppl.
and when you want some area put under surveillance,you send out Cell phone call,
every one in xyz area turn on your cell phone camera, record, for 5 min. send
to XXX number.
The one who gets the perp on tape, get the 100 $usd?

good if you think perp is in specfic area, etc, or running surveillance, as perp moves into new area he just notices every one is recording with cell phone.

All vids computer Id scanned to find “Winner”

I’m scaring my self….


John Thurston November 9, 2010 3:13 PM

There is probably more money to be made by signing up to be a “viewer” and then blackmailing the “shop lifters” you identify in the video feed.

Thomas November 9, 2010 3:21 PM

“… can win 1000 pounds if they detect the most shoplifting in some time interval,

Internet Eyes is primarily relying on voyeurism to compensate its Viewers.”

The system’s reward is the same as that of a lottery: the promise of the Big Payoff.
People won’t watch for 50p/30 hours, they’ll watch because the KNOW they’ll get the 1000 pounds.

Gweihir November 9, 2010 3:28 PM

The sad thing is that this will probably work, there are enough people with a great big ego and a void of the same size in their life.

At least, anyone getting caught by this can rest assured that they were caught by a sad loser.

NobodySpecial November 9, 2010 3:31 PM

SO couch potatoes are now cheaper than a neural net – I suppose that’s Moore’s law of a kind.

Davi Ottenheimer November 9, 2010 3:38 PM

My first issue with this is that at its very best it would still represent a failure to use technology.

This is not a problem to be solved by humans but rather by better technology — use computers to automate boring, routine tasks that require no intelligence such as spotting sudden movement where none existed.

My second issue is that it begs abuse. Obfuscation is not perfect but would a defender really want to grant attackers the ability to thoroughly research the surveillance of a space before they attack? We could save a step and remove the fog of a middle-man; businesses might have a better chance to know when they outsource the security monitoring job directly to the people trying to undermine their security.

Third, why is the 1000 pound reward for both “the best contribution to the prevention or detection of a crime”. Prevention and detection should be split as the criteria are vastly different. Maybe you make changes because you see suspicious behavior but how do you compute that “contribution” versus catching someone who did actual harm? It’s not an equal playing field so you actually give greater incentive for people to wait for crime (detection) before reporting it.

Bitter & Twisted November 9, 2010 3:49 PM

Exellent. I know which shops my ex wife frequents.
So I’ll watch that feed until she’s there, then report her for shoplifting.
She probably would be, too.

David Thornley November 9, 2010 4:04 PM

You know, if I wanted to be voyeuristic that way, I could just go to the mall myself. The images or people there aren’t fuzzy, grainy, and black and white, and I could maneuver to see more if the sort of people I’d want to be voyeuristic about.

Clive Robinson November 9, 2010 5:20 PM

For all those doing the economics of this there are a few other things to consider. As a minimum the direct costs of,

1, cost of equipment.
2, cost of telecommunication subscription
3, cost of electricity

Then there’s lighting and heating, increase in cost of insurance, increase in land tax as you are technicaly running a business.

This will never pay even if you win every other month and you won’t because it is not in the service providers interests to have the same person win month after month or even twice in the same year.

Andrew November 9, 2010 6:39 PM

What about combining crowdsourced spotting with the passport control problem mentioned in yesterday’s post?

There’d no waiting around and getting bored here – there will always be new photos coming in.

A person at passport control would just have to scan in passport photos, leaving the personal details out. All the person on the Internet would see is 2 photos of a random person – hardly a privacy issue.

The system / mechanical turk could be configured to have 3 or 4 people verify the same passenger to decrease the odds of a false positive / false negative.

Gaz November 9, 2010 8:54 PM

I honestly can’t believe this is anything more than a con to get a few people to sign up and pay monthly fees. It’s had a lot of media interest, but there’s toomuch missing from the site.

There’s virtually nothing directed at businesses who might want to allow access to their cameras, except a ‘give us your details and we’ll get back to you’ form. Nothing indicating how they connect a camera system to their servers, or the associated costs.

Then there’s the problem of actually stopping the alleged perpetrators. I presume this is aimed at small businesses that don’t already have paid security staff. The chosen alert mechanism of a text message to a smart phone will still take a good few seconds. Looking at the message within sight of the suspects will alert them, and once they start running there’s relatively little that can be done, legally, by a private individual, to stop them (in the UK at least).

Plus, in most businesses small enough that thief-alert by text message is a vaguely sane idea, the smart-phone may be the most valuable single item in the shop. Advertisting the presence of such an item – and a known way to get it out of the owners pocket and into a ‘stealable’ position – with posters saying ‘protection by internet eyes’ might well be counter productive.

Matt November 9, 2010 10:02 PM

@ Bruce
“This system suffered the same problems as Internet Eyes — not enough incentive to do a good job, boredom because crime is the rare exception — as well as the fact that false alarms were very expensive to deal with.”

Roll on Internet Eyes then. Not only do the economics seem to make these initiatives self correcting, but surely the more high profile failures there are, the more it will boost the cynicism of the the general public towards scaremongering and the more it will help them correctly evaluate risk.

AC2 November 10, 2010 12:04 AM

@Sean Edison-Albright

“Calls to mind the success of the Baker Street Irregulars …”

What rot… That elite team of professionals was only called on when Holmes had a very specific task that utilised their particular skills..

Nothing like the full-time navel-gazing pseudo-surveillance on offer here…

keith November 10, 2010 7:14 AM

“People won’t watch for 50p/30 hours, they’ll watch because the KNOW they’ll get the 1000 pounds.”

The economics is fine (as a viewer) as long as you log on and leave it running (£15 per month!).
It’s rubbish money, but with enough logins its viable – not that I’ll catch anyone, but then I wouldn’t want to create a false positive and get marked as a false alerter!

I see them spending more on devious viewers than they’ll get from shops.

From a shops point of view it’s theartre: i.e. “Protected by Internet eyes – our cameras are being constantly monitored”

Howard Beale November 10, 2010 9:05 AM

Why not just pair off everyone on the planet and have each pair watch each other all the time? This would allow us to cancel all of the other porkfat surveillance and security programs, and with the resultant savings, we could give everyone an hourly income of hundreds of dollars. This would allow us ALL to develop massive cocaine habits, and then we could simply arrest ourselves, drive each other to jail, and then watch each other to make sure we don’t escape. No reason we can’t win the war on terror and the war on drugs in one fell swoop.

No problem getting the Republicans on board. Just make up some Bible quote (it says right there in Highcolonicus 7:11, “And hominahominamumblecough smote them.”) that justifies it. Tell the Democrats they can safely promise everybody a free unicorn, and you’ve got them in your corner, too. I mean, really, who’s going to complain? The Cali Cartel? The computer/smartphone/implanted forehead camera industry? The guys who sell bandwidth? Hell, if you watch your opposite all night, you might even get some free porn, too.

And the potential for ADS! Don’t forget the ADS!!

Jakub Narębski November 10, 2010 9:36 AM

Using still photographs to detect people in no-man zones disregards the motion detector that is built-in in our brains; it is easier I think to detect people if it is video, not a still photo.

SmDA November 10, 2010 10:12 AM

This one really raised some hilarious comments.

IMO, everyone should be naturally repelled by the idea of citizen surveillance. Dark ages. Soviet Union. Cuba. Nazi Germany. Yadda yadda yadda. Morality police.

I feel the same way about hiway cameras for speeding – on hiways outside of cities – not needed. It dumbs people down and creates a culture of condemnation.

Just Say NO! November 10, 2010 3:26 PM

This is disturbing on many, many levels.

People actually think it is reasonable to have this level of citizen surveillance.

I am amazed that the Soviets actually won the Cold War while we all thought they had lost.

Imperfect Citizen November 10, 2010 9:33 PM

@Gerald Anthro its already here.

Civil defense has already got the crowdsource surveillance game on. Look at the websites for FEMA, your state fusion centers, look at participating contractors, telecomms. When you are targeted, you will know it because the citizen spies have no training. Its just a “great part time job watching people.”
Or as the cops said in front of me “its just citizens watching a citizen” they were laughing. I wasn’t. It is a terrible thing seeing this happen in our beautiful country.

A. Non November 16, 2010 5:48 AM

Bruce, a system quite similar to the “spotters” system you describe was used by NASA to identify specks of cosmic dust in cross-sectional images of aerogel:

Every now and again they would put in a known image containing a speck of dust, to check the reliability of a given user. If someone reported a positive result on an unexpected image, they would (if I recall correctly) improve the confidence by showing that image to people who had performed well on the known positive images. After that came expert review I imagine.

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