Computers and Video Surveillance

It used to be that surveillance cameras were passive. Maybe they just recorded, and no one looked at the video unless they needed to. Maybe a bored guard watched a dozen different screens, scanning for something interesting. In either case, the video was only stored for a few days because storage was expensive.

Increasingly, none of that is true. Recent developments in video analytics -- fueled by artificial intelligence techniques like machine learning -- enable computers to watch and understand surveillance videos with human-like discernment. Identification technologies make it easier to automatically figure out who is in the videos. And finally, the cameras themselves have become cheaper, more ubiquitous, and much better; cameras mounted on drones can effectively watch an entire city. Computers can watch all the video without human issues like distraction, fatigue, training, or needing to be paid. The result is a level of surveillance that was impossible just a few years ago.

An ACLU report published Thursday called "the Dawn of Robot Surveillance" says AI-aided video surveillance "won't just record us, but will also make judgments about us based on their understanding of our actions, emotions, skin color, clothing, voice, and more. These automated 'video analytics' technologies threaten to fundamentally change the nature of surveillance."

Let's take the technologies one at a time. First: video analytics. Computers are getting better at recognizing what's going on in a video. Detecting when a person or vehicle enters a forbidden area is easy. Modern systems can alarm when someone is walking in the wrong direction -- going in through an exit-only corridor, for example. They can count people or cars. They can detect when luggage is left unattended, or when previously unattended luggage is picked up and removed. They can detect when someone is loitering in an area, is lying down, or is running. Increasingly, they can detect particular actions by people. Amazon's cashier-less stores rely on video analytics to figure out when someone picks an item off a shelf and doesn't put it back.

More than identifying actions, video analytics allow computers to understand what's going on in a video: They can flag people based on their clothing or behavior, identify people's emotions through body language and behavior, and find people who are acting "unusual" based on everyone else around them. Those same Amazon in-store cameras can analyze customer sentiment. Other systems can describe what's happening in a video scene.

Computers can also identify people. AIs are getting better at identifying people in those videos. Facial recognition technology is improving all the time, made easier by the enormous stockpile of tagged photographs we give to Facebook and other social media sites, and the photos governments collect in the process of issuing ID cards and drivers licenses. The technology already exists to automatically identify everyone a camera "sees" in real time. Even without video identification, we can be identified by the unique information continuously broadcasted by the smartphones we carry with us everywhere, or by our laptops or Bluetooth-connected devices. Police have been tracking phones for years, and this practice can now be combined with video analytics.

Once a monitoring system identifies people, their data can be combined with other data, either collected or purchased: from cell phone records, GPS surveillance history, purchasing data, and so on. Social media companies like Facebook have spent years learning about our personalities and beliefs by what we post, comment on, and "like." This is "data inference," and when combined with video it offers a powerful window into people's behaviors and motivations.

Camera resolution is also improving. Gigapixel cameras as so good that they can capture individual faces and identify license places in photos taken miles away. "Wide-area surveillance" cameras can be mounted on airplanes and drones, and can operate continuously. On the ground, cameras can be hidden in street lights and other regular objects. In space, satellite cameras have also dramatically improved.

Data storage has become incredibly cheap, and cloud storage makes it all so easy. Video data can easily be saved for years, allowing computers to conduct all of this surveillance backwards in time.

In democratic countries, such surveillance is marketed as crime prevention -- or counterterrorism. In countries like China, it is blatantly used to suppress political activity and for social control. In all instances, it's being implemented without a lot of public debate by law-enforcement agencies and by corporations in public spaces they control.

This is bad, because ubiquitous surveillance will drastically change our relationship to society. We've never lived in this sort of world, even those of us who have lived through previous totalitarian regimes. The effects will be felt in many different areas. False positives­ -- when the surveillance system gets it wrong­ -- will lead to harassment and worse. Discrimination will become automated. Those who fall outside norms will be marginalized. And most importantly, the inability to live anonymously will have an enormous chilling effect on speech and behavior, which in turn will hobble society's ability to experiment and change. A recent ACLU report discusses these harms in more depth. While it's possible that some of this surveillance is worth the trade-offs, we as society need to deliberately and intelligently make decisions about it.

Some jurisdictions are starting to notice. Last month, San Francisco became the first city to ban facial recognition technology by police and other government agencies. A similar ban is being considered in Somerville, MA, and Oakland, CA. These are exceptions, and limited to the more liberal areas of the country.

We often believe that technological change is inevitable, and that there's nothing we can do to stop it -- or even to steer it. That's simply not true. We're led to believe this because we don't often see it, understand it, or have a say in how or when it is deployed. The problem is that technologies of cameras, resolution, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are complex and specialized.

Laws like what was just passed in San Francisco won't stop the development of these technologies, but they're not intended to. They're intended as pauses, so our policy making can catch up with technology. As a general rule, the US government tends to ignore technologies as they're being developed and deployed, so as not to stifle innovation. But as the rate of technological change increases, so does the unanticipated effects on our lives. Just as we've been surprised by the threats to democracy caused by surveillance capitalism, AI-enabled video surveillance will have similar surprising effects. Maybe a pause in our headlong deployment of these technologies will allow us the time to discuss what kind of society we want to live in, and then enact rules to bring that kind of society about.

This essay previously appeared on Vice Motherboard.

Posted on June 14, 2019 at 12:04 PM • 18 Comments

Comments

David LeppikJune 14, 2019 3:05 PM

The original essay said this:

Amazon's cashier-less stores rely on video analytics to figure out when someone picks an item off a shelf and doesn't put it back.

More than identifying actions, video analytics allow computers to understand what's going on in a video: They can flag people based on their clothing or behavior...

which got crushed into this:

Amazon's cashier-less stores clothing or behavior...

Frank WilhoitJune 14, 2019 4:13 PM

"...what kind of society we want to live in, and then enact rules to bring that kind of society about."

We (which is to say, the overwhelming majority of us, who have no knowledge, no insight, no judgment, and no decency) have decided that we want to live in a society where rules are weapons, selectively enforced (or fabricated on the fly) on the basis of tribal affiliation.

jhJune 14, 2019 6:01 PM

On AIs reading our emotions - Lisa Barrett in her book, How Emotions Are Made, says that there are no good facial markers for emotion, take this image - is she in pain, angry or what? Only once you know the context can you infer the emotion (she's just beaten her sister, Venus).

OtterJune 14, 2019 8:00 PM

It does not matter that AIs cannot reliably read emotions or intentions.

The greedy salespersons will insist they can. They will also provide false studies, printed in fake academic journals.

Ambitious judges, lawyers, politicians, generals, and gameshow producers will insist they can. They will provide hearsay examples of amazing outcomes.

AIs will not learn to hate and kill us. They will simply do what they are told, obey the orders, of the ambitious authorities, and haphazard softwares which inform their dim perceptions.

Erdem MemisyaziciJune 14, 2019 9:52 PM

Operating a cult has never been easier. Thanks security industry!

Petre Peter June 15, 2019 7:51 AM

The future looks bleak. But who will have the courage to disrupt the enormous profits of surveillance capitalism? Affective computing is 'the computer told me to do it' excuse. People shouldn't be replaced but augmented.

MikeJune 15, 2019 2:04 PM

I am 100% behind no generalized surveillance / profiling based on Image feeds into AI/ML, but had to deal recently with a (significant) office theft where I didn’t know when it happened, and the only was to narrow down the building footage was to filter it through this sort of tech. Having ML filter out false positives saved me weeks of my life watching unrelated footage. So, as always with security, there’s a trade off between catching criminals, and people who are just (rightly or wrongly) suspicious. In our case, narrowing down the footage to review was amazing, but I see how the profiling gets unfair.

GweihirJune 15, 2019 3:27 PM

What is also needed and urgently is significant penalties for those that operate this kind of tech outside of the law. Cops need to go to prison for it. But that is very unlikely to happen, as the US has crossed the threshold to Police State a while ago.

Wesley ParishJune 16, 2019 5:05 AM

Of course, the joke is that this just makes SkyNet more likely ... I've believed, ever since I bothered to think about the topic, that true Artificial Intelligence would be emergent, rather than designed according to spec. (Reading Roderick At Random didn't help any :) )

The horrible thing is that the doofuses (doofi) at the top of the social food chain firmly believe that this will never affect them in any way. Yeah right! The descendants of Gudea, one of the Sumerian city-state kings, and one of the most powerful of them all at that time, are peasants today in the Iraqi south, and they don't know they're his descendants. Has any of the "deciders" ever worried about the effect of having these cameras turned on them? I mean, they're practically indetectable, they're potentially ubiquitous, they're programmable which means in the future they're likely to become self-programming ... and of course, they're likely to have backdoors aplenty, either deliberate or accidental, which means that whoever can, will, and whoever can't, will teach ...

Couple that with deepfakes and the like, and my nightmare of having personal identity subjected to "derivatives" trading, seems rather lightweight.

JerryJune 16, 2019 9:41 PM

"Couple that with deepfakes and the like, and my nightmare of having personal identity subjected to "derivatives" trading, seems rather lightweight."

I would not be surprised if this is a future of ours because the paradigm of the "money" game is to constantly seek for venues to inflate into (more "metrics" to extract value out of "intangibles).

However, as with all things that are "envisioned" it generally takes 10-15 years to materialize, by my gestimation. Thus, by that time we will all be retired and live on a remote island, so this will not be applicable to us in a general fashion.

The only "visions" of the past two decades that did not materialize that I can think of is that of "biometric" implants given at birth which function as some sort of identification in a national ID system. This was first "envisioned" at that time by Mrs you know who (hint: her first name is hillary) but the looney idea never substantiated though it first caught some tractions and propelled her on her path to her hypohetical presidency (which thankfully did not materialize either).

Margaret BartleyJune 16, 2019 11:38 PM

One of the things that is creeping me out is that this material seems to be coming into full power at exactly the same time THEY (whoever THEY are) are doubling-down on all-Party-Line All-The-Time.
Anything or any one or any opinion that is not reflective of the correct intonation and fact sect is labeled as fake news or junk science or hate speech or whatever they want to use to shut down dissention and new ideas.

It makes the Chinese version of Social Scores, where your politics and life style determine what transit you are allowed on, etc, seem very superficial.

One of the things we can do is require that all cameras shooting or recording in public be registered, and their owners listed and accessible. Private cameras need to announce their presence, and contact information be posted.

No OneJune 17, 2019 2:26 AM

@ Margaret Bartley

It is interesting, isn't it? Who exactly is on the other end of the camera? Make it mandatory that this person's name be exposed.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg

If that were enforced, things would get interesting fast.

So, Winston Smith is in his room being watched by INGSOC 24/7. How is that different from the IoT being piggy-backed by INGSOC? The potential for global human enslavement in a panopticon is not a far-fetched scenario. It starts to look like an open-air prison.

JoshJune 18, 2019 6:57 PM

"It makes the Chinese version of Social Scores, where your politics and life style determine what transit you are allowed on, etc, seem very superficial."

The Chinese are not limited to a social score in the regard they are also innovators in the field of "computer vision" and in some cases are way ahead of US in game. The recent USGov ban list included a communist state-run video surveillance corporation for good reasons.

The race is to who can install a more advanced surveillance state, which we may want to call Surveilance 3.0.

No One / Ex CathedraJune 18, 2019 9:06 PM

One sentence in that hard-hitting essay leapt out at me:

"Discrimination will become automated. Those who fall outside norms will be marginalized. And most importantly, the inability to live anonymously will have an enormous chilling effect on speech and behavior,..."

The future is not looking so good ladies and gents.

But I see another side to this: it will also push people to form underground communities, and those might be rewarding.

FPJune 19, 2019 8:51 AM

There is an enormous chilling effect to being outside the norm.

You could live without a credit card, but if you do, you do not have a credit score, which would make certain everyday transaction harder, more expensive, or even impossible, e.g., if you want to purchase a car, or if your future landlord insists on a credit report. Remaining outside this kind of financial surveillance is impractical, so we grudgingly accept it -- even though everyone of us has heard many stories about false negatives on a credit report ruining lives and being impossible to correct.

Once every instance where an automated system marks us for acting outside the norm is recorded in permanent files, we will learn to stay within the norm, because we will be afraid that the costs of having an indelible grey mark on our record will only increase over time.

JerryJune 20, 2019 2:46 AM

@FP wrote, "You could live without a credit card, but if you do, you do not have a credit score, which would make certain everyday transaction harder"

The monetary regime of the West and in particular US of A had made it very hard to live debt-free, due to the abundance of credt which perpetually inflated prices in a spiral.

First it is very difficult to attend university without incurring debt, thus gaining the pass to get a step into this "fiscal world" or money game. Furthermore, the various universities perpetrating this perpetual lie of tuition inflation reinvest their extra monies (a very huge sum due to inflated tuition costs) back into the financial markets thereby aiding in further inflations of money.

Thus, without credit "worthiness" it is impossible to make large vital purchases which some may deem as a vital living need. This is one of the "metrics" that govern the fabrics of society, every effectively.

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