"Through a Lens, Darkly"
October 8, 2001
In the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, all manner of new "biometric" technology is being touted as ways to prevent future terrorism. Some of the ones being most widely promoted (especially by their manufacturers) are video surveillance systems, particularly ones that claim to be able to automatically identify persons who fall under the gaze of their cameras.
I was curious about the real-world applications of these systems, so I spoke to Stewart "Stinky" Jones, a senior consultant working with facial recognition technologies.
"Stinky, I just have to ask, where'd you get that nickname?"
"You'll figure it out eventually," Stinky replied, "but my parents and the neighborhood kids always called me that."
"Hmmm. Well, anyway, I was hoping you could fill me in on the applications of these new video face recognition systems. I hear they're talking about putting them in all over the U.S. in airports, and some of their promoters are even suggesting tying them into automatic teller cameras, cameras in buildings, street cameras, and so on," I said.
"That's right. The applications are practically unlimited. Two of the biggest systems right now are in Iceland at their main airport, and of course the British system where they have cameras sprouting up in just about every nook and cranny. But there are others too, in places you'd never suspect, and there will be a heck of a lot more before we're through!"
"So September 11th notwithstanding, I assume these systems have been responsible for heading off other planned terrorist attacks?"
"Well, actually, no. As far as I know they've never caught a potential terrorist or other serious criminal with these systems."
"But there's all this talk about a detailed database that the systems are always scanning, looking for face matches ..."
"Lauren, you have to realize a few things about the realities of this technology. First of all, its accuracy isn't really all that great for identifying people as opposed to verifying who someone is. In other words, if you want to confirm that the guy who says he's Nostradamus McFarlin really is that person, then the system may be helpful. But if you want to pick him out in a public place where there are lots of other people around it's much harder, so the error rate is much higher."
"Can't you adjust for that?"
"Well, if you set the match parameters too tightly you'll miss everyone. And if you set things too loosely you'll trigger on everything with two eyes and a mouth. Of course, if your main interest is just setting off the alarm whenever someone with dark skin or some other obvious racial trait comes into the neighborhood, you'll do a whole lot better!"
"What about disguises?" I asked. "I heard that John Cleese fooled one of those systems by wearing a false beard and earrings. Any Monty Python fan would have recognized him in that get-up!"
"Look, the systems aren't, uh, perfect. But even if you can't catch terrorists with them reliably, there are other ways to push for the lucrative installation contracts. You can make a big show of programming them with the database of all missing children, or wanted murderers, or people with lots of unpaid parking tickets. In places like Singapore, you could promote the idea of the systems watching for folks chewing gum, arresting them, then warming up the ol' punishment cane -- whack! And remember, even the definition of 'terrorist' is always changing and varies from place to place, and you don't always know who a terrorist is in advance, so you can sell the idea of including the images of known dissidents and troublemakers in the database to keep tabs on them as well. For that matter, we can ultimately promote the dumping of everyone's motor vehicle photos into the database for future use and really go for the big money!"
"Stinky, I find all of this pretty disturbing," I said.
"Hey, Lauren, you gotta keep in mind that the systems don't really work all that well right now at actually catching people, so it's mostly about deterrence anyway. If people assume they're being watched all the time and can be easily identified for any infractions, they're more likely to conform. Oh, I'll admit there's the potential for abuse. But there are definite positive aspects to the systems. For example, just between you and me, the personal entertainment possibilities are pretty darn impressive," said Stinky.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, up in our center, we've programmed the system to watch for all women with big, uh, you know ..."
"Well, it gets a bit boring sometimes looking at all those shots of people sticking out their tongues and giving the finger to the cameras, so we've set things up so that an alarm goes off whenever a particularly well-endowed woman walks by. We've even got the system rigged to save the best images so we can print them out later. If we set things up right we might even occasionally be able to manage an ID match so we get home addresses! You should see some of the babes' shots that we keep up on the walls around the control room, not to mention the prints I took home!"
"Stinky, that's really obnoxious."
"Hey! What's the big deal? They're walking around in public places, right? As far as I'm concerned they've got no expectation of privacy! And we're not even sexist about it. One of our guys has the system programmed to alarm whenever it sees two men holding hands. Like I said, the sales opportunities are endless with potential customers in law enforcement, commercial enterprises, and entertainment operations, plus the more cameras you've got, the better the fun!"
"I think I'm beginning to understand why they call you Stinky," I said.
"I knew you'd figure it out," Stinky replied.
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For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren
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