Big bother is watching us? Or is he just watching the "bad" people?
September 2, 2002 6:10 PM   Subscribe

Big bother is watching us? Or is he just watching the "bad" people? Video surveillance cameras in NYC and at certain airports have the ability to match passers by with the photos of thousands of known criminals. The same technology was used during the 2001 Super Bowl; MIFI discussed it here (shameless self-post). Is this technology as harmless as a big book of mug shots and/or a mall security guard? Or is it more sinister? Is law enforce just watching us? Or is this legit to sort out passers by from known criminals?
posted by Bag Man (27 comments total)
 
I feel much the same as I did when I wrote this:

"I'm not sure where I stand on this issue. On one hand, I feel that training a camera on me and doing a face search is an invasion of privacy. Furthermore, I don't think that that people should be made to feel like they've done something wrong before anybody does done anything.

On the other hand, I don't see any difference between having a camera focused on me or a security guard watching me. From malls, to ballparks, to just about anywhere security officers and cameras are needed to keep the peace and prevent crime.

Perhaps its the unregulated use of such technology that really bothers me. Having little, or no, oversight can create a situation where there is no way to prevent the powers that be from abusing such technology."

However, post 9-11 I'm more worried that the video lineup technology will me used improperly and the technology expanded too far.
posted by Bag Man at 6:15 PM on September 2, 2002


...I'm more worried that the video lineup technology will me used improperly and the technology expanded too far.

What's improper? How far is too far? Do you really think cops are going to start arresting people wholesale just because a computer told them to?

I have to wonder if all these gadgets are going to make a difference in whether or not someone abuses a position of authority. If someone is going to mess with you, they don't need cameras and facial recognition software to do it - they'll just come to your house and flash a badge and make you disappear, old-fashioned analog style. Cops have been assholes for thousands of years, working with antiquated tools like sticks and chemical-projectile weapons. I don't think a computer is going to turn a cop into Dracula overnight.

Maybe I'm being naive, but it seems to me that all this technology can make you safer from false arrest rather than in more danger - a lot of falsely convicted rapists are being set free because of DNA tests, for example. And the cameras are recording the cops as well as the civilians, so the cops have to watch their ass when they're being taped.

Cameras and computers installed in a public place implies that someone is watching those cameras and paying attention to what the computers say. Just because the technology is getting smarter doesn't mean that the people in charge are getting smarter at the same rate.
posted by RylandDotNet at 6:32 PM on September 2, 2002


Big Bother? Is that one of those gay robots?
posted by Joeforking at 6:38 PM on September 2, 2002


Big Bother ...so true, so true.
posted by fatbobsmith at 6:40 PM on September 2, 2002


I have to wonder if all these gadgets are going to make a difference in whether or not someone abuses a position of authority. If someone is going to mess with you, they don't need cameras and facial recognition software to do it - they'll just come to your house and flash a badge and make you disappear, old-fashioned analog style.

Additional technology makes it a whole lot easier.

Joeforking...Yikes, my bad…MIFI should have a function to correct spelling after one posts, for those us who miss some stuff on preview. Do I smell a MetaTalk post coming on? No wait that’s just my socks.
posted by Bag Man at 6:46 PM on September 2, 2002


The article isn't just about some of the technology that's being used now to take our privacy away, but also the sharing of that information amongst the different collectors.

And I was upset recently when I heard about data collection practices in elementary schools. See this press release from the New York Attorney General's Office about a marketing company that set up a non-profit organization to collect information from students. EPIC's website has more on their Privacy and Consumer Profiling page (scroll about halfway down to the section called Student Profiling).
posted by bragadocchio at 7:03 PM on September 2, 2002


Even if false positives could be eliminated and there could be some kind of doubleblind privacy protection installed, the US is still a country full of victimless laws. This system could be presented as a terrorist-thwarter, even if it doesn't catch one terrorist. We've seen the slipperly slope in action here in Chicago, the Denver boot was introduced to get gross violators of the city's parking laws. Now its down to three tickets and even if you didn't purchase a city car tax sticker on time! Imagine how many jaywalkers and potsmokers we can catch. No need for police, just mail them the summons or the fine. No need for a trial, that guy in the photo looks a lot like you! You're going to lose without a decent (read expensive) lawyer anyway. Just think of the increased revenue in the name of law enforcement.

A virtual web of security cameras is different than just one security guard. Obviously, being in public doesn't mean you have the privacy rights of being in your home, but that doesn't also mean a security guard can follow you non-stop throughout the day. That would be harassment, yet this is exactly what these systems can do. Virtual harassment anyone?

Rylandotnet: Do you really think cops are going to start arresting people wholesale just because a computer told them to?

Sure works that way at the airport. The compuer runs an algorithm and because of how you spell your last name (or some other ridiculous example) you will be searched on every flight you get onto. Not to mention wholesale arrests have become a sticky issue lately.
posted by skallas at 7:05 PM on September 2, 2002


Do you really think cops are going to start arresting people wholesale just because a computer told them to?
I can't find the link right now, but I've read of a case where a system identified a stolen car; that it was stolen previously by an violent husband, and later when the car was pulled over there was some confusion and the suspect was shot (in the leg, he made a full recovery). The car registration records were out of date, and the car was legally bought earlier that week. The story's take on it was that if the officiers didn't have that unfounded advice they mightn't have been so prejudice (read: jumpy) and they wouldn't have shot the guy for quickly getting out of his car.

I haven't read of a facial recognition system that didn't fail less than a third of the time. Maybe if it improves I'll change my mind that it provides so much misinformation as to be dangerous.
posted by holloway at 7:11 PM on September 2, 2002


A virtual web of security cameras is different than just one security guard ... but that doesn't also mean a security guard can follow you non-stop throughout the day. That would be harassment ...

That's exactly what video cameras have already been doing for years. Go to the mall, drive down the street, you're on camera. This is news?

Not to mention wholesale arrests have become a sticky issue lately.

Don't blame the Kmart arrests on abuse of technology - that was one police captain abusing his authority, which just proves my point, cops can be assholes with or without technology.

Don't we have this same argument every time some new law-enforcement tool comes out? It seems like I remember that people thought identifying fingerprints was the end of privacy way back when.
posted by RylandDotNet at 7:21 PM on September 2, 2002


This press release. (sorry).

And, I agree with Holloway about the facial recognition software. It's proven to be a problem by most who have installed it, such as by Tampa's police department. EPIC also has a pretty good page documenting other locations where the software's performance has be found wanting.
posted by bragadocchio at 7:24 PM on September 2, 2002


...I've read of a case where a system identified a stolen car; that it was stolen previously by an violent husband, and later when the car was pulled over there was some confusion and the suspect was shot...

*sigh* Cops never shot anybody by accident before facial recognition software? Come on, you guys are confusing the symptoms with the disease.

I'd like to make a disclaimer at this point, however: I'm not a big fan of these technologies, and I think it's obvious that facial recognition technology has a long way to go. I don't, however, think it or cameras or databases or anything are any more destructive of privacy than are fingerprints or DNA. It's just another tool law enforcement can use - well or poorly, according to the skill and intelligence of the particular cop involved. I consider this akin to consumer technology, like P2P file sharing; sure, it can be abused, but the risks are overbalanced by the benefits - and whether you like it or not, it isn't going away, so you better learn to deal with it.
posted by RylandDotNet at 7:30 PM on September 2, 2002


That's exactly what video cameras have already been doing for years. Go to the mall, drive down the street, you're on camera. This is news?
For the amount of misinformation being given to police, yeah.

As the story says, the idea is to join distinct video networks into one accessible by the government for law enforcement. Now, if the internet was divided into one million networks I couldn't search it, and right now the government can't feasibly mine this data. So yeah, we've always had cameras on us, but the network is changing.

As for your point that you've heard people saying the sky is falling before... so it can't happen this time... well, ahem.
*sigh* Cops never shot anybody by accident before facial recognition software? Come on, you guys are confusing the symptoms with the disease.
And getting back to how people use information do you think that the government has demonstrated that they can tell the difference?
posted by holloway at 7:35 PM on September 2, 2002


This page lists the various locations of cameras around NYC. There is another site (link forgotten right now), that allows you to enter origin/destination information, and it will plot a map of how to travel and avoid all cameras.
posted by Hankins at 7:57 PM on September 2, 2002


As for your point that you've heard people saying the sky is falling before... so it can't happen this time... well, ahem ... And getting back to how people use information do you think that the government has demonstrated that they can tell the difference?

Dude, the sky already fell. This technology is in play today and has been for years. Has the number of false arrests attributable to surveillance tech gone up or down? Are more people in jail because of faulty surveillance now than 10 years ago? Show me some numbers and we'll talk, I can accept being wrong. All we've got now is alarmist rhetoric and a few anectdotes.
posted by RylandDotNet at 7:59 PM on September 2, 2002


rylanddotnet: That's exactly what video cameras have already been doing for years. Go to the mall, drive down the street, you're on camera. This is news?

No, the news is facial recognition, tracking, and video processing on a mass scale. Or so that's the theory. You're defending your point by using technology as a vague term instead of looking at the already demonstrated problems with the technology this article hints at. You might as well be defending about germ theory as proof positive that these technologies are ready for primetime or if they should be used at all knowing what we do about American politics and law enforcement.
posted by skallas at 8:05 PM on September 2, 2002


I never claimed facial recognition tech was ready for primetime (see my disclaimer above, where I said just the opposite), I'm just not convinced that it or any technology used by law enforcment is inherently evil, as the "Is Big Brother watching us?" headline seems to indicate.
posted by RylandDotNet at 8:39 PM on September 2, 2002


skallas: No, the news is facial recognition, tracking, and video processing on a mass scale. Or so that's the theory. You're defending your point by using technology as a vague term instead of looking at the already demonstrated problems with the technology this article hints at.

i'm confused...'demonstrated problems'? maybe i am also being naive but i've seen no instance in the article that points to actual real life examples of demonstrated problems; it's all conjecture.

as for the whole 'technology as a vague term' argument; please elaborate. ryland focused on a real life example of technology that is currently being used ....you are arguing your point (admittedly) by theory....your argument is much more vague than his.

i have to side with ryland on this.... reads more like a 'bill o'reilly' soapbox than anything else....oh yeah - the sky IS falling and alien autopsies are no laughing matter ;)
posted by poopy at 9:07 PM on September 2, 2002


About Identix Inc., the biometrics company in this article.
Roth said the systems have a ''deterrent effect, and it does catch some people.'' But more often, the people operating the systems were overwhelmed with false positives, he said.

For now, the problem arises when trying to calibrate the system, said Roth. The software can be programmed to signal the operator only when a person's face is a very close match to a picture stored in the computer's memory. But when it's set that narrowly, Roth said, it was easy to beat the system. Just holding one's head at an unusual angle fooled the computer.

Identix CEO Joseph Atick said that if his company's system is correctly calibrated, it has a false positive rate of no more than 2 percent.
This story was published on 17/7/2002
posted by holloway at 9:53 PM on September 2, 2002


I don't think a jury is going to convict on the say-so of facial recognition software, not until it's perfected, anyway. Until then, they'll treat it like they'd treat a motion detector - the computer sounds an alarm, a cop goes to look. But from a privacy standpoint, it's irrelevant. What's the moral difference between being recognized in public by a software program and being recognized in public by a cop with a photo?
posted by RylandDotNet at 10:29 PM on September 2, 2002


One idea I haven't seen in this thread is this: I see all of these surveillance technologies as a sort of continuum along which law enforcement is moving. While it may be very difficult to point to a given increment in that motion and say "here is where the line has been crossed beyond which our privacy and rights are infringed", there must be such a point. We would probably all agree that there is some extreme of surveillance which is clearly too much, but each of us must decide for him/herself just where that line lies.
It's clear that some contributors to this discussion are comfortable that the tech in question is still on the acceptable side of the line. Please don't be surprised that this is not the case for all of us.
posted by Nicolae Carpathia at 2:17 AM on September 3, 2002


How about a gay RoboCop that walks and talks and has a database of everyone's mug that he/she can access to help track down known criminals? He/she can casually walk his beat and say nice things at random, hand out candy to children and carry old women across the street, change flat tires, etc. Should RoboCop "recognize" a criminal, then of course it has to be "dead or alive, you're coming with me."

I think I'm partial to this guy, however.
posted by Witty at 2:30 AM on September 3, 2002


The only thing holding back the full power of this improving technology is legislation.

The only thing holding Coca-Cola back from being part of a well balanced diet is that it is now everywhere. We all understand where that ubiquitousness has gotten us.
posted by crasspastor at 2:36 AM on September 3, 2002


Let's face it, the west has been morphing into a police state for years. Todays technology is just bringing it along quicker. If you want to see the future of CCTV's look at the U.K. And don't forget to smile.
posted by spinifex at 4:12 AM on September 3, 2002


A cop holding a photo is probably better at facial recognition than any of the computerized options. High false positive rates increase the chance that law-abiding citizens will be tracked and/or harassed.

My concern is about the lack of oversight. Only the cops can see the feeds from these cameras, so we have only their (extremely biased) word for it that they are effective (or not). Why isn't every public security camera in NYC web-accessible?
posted by kewms at 5:16 AM on September 3, 2002


Hear, hear.
posted by nickmark at 9:30 AM on September 3, 2002


Until then, they'll treat it like they'd treat a motion detector - the computer sounds an alarm, a cop goes to look.
Yeah, an alarm that goes off once for every fifty people that walk through an airport.

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...and that's on a good day.
posted by holloway at 12:56 PM on September 3, 2002


*beep* sleeps
posted by ajr at 9:35 AM on September 4, 2002


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