Monday, May 16, 2005

Big Brother a vote or two away

The future is now.

Today, Big Brother is no longer some paranoid concept from a futuristic novel -- it's a phenonmena that's just a vote or two away at the Texas Legislature from near-permanent ensconcement.

As the Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee prepares to consider gathering biometric facial recognition data on Texas drivers and ID card holders on Wednesday morning, Austin's KXAN-TV reports on the proliferation of surveillance cameras in Austin, many operated by local government, that monitor public spaces. Those government cameras could ultimately hook into the proposed biometric facial recognition database, so police could theoretically identify individuals by name from surveillance footage. I doubt many people realize the scope of the current proliferation of surveillance technology, but it's fairly stunning:

The government has them. Restaurants and shops have them too.

Surveillance cameras are going up everywhere often without your knowledge.

The government is making sure, soon you won't be able to get away with anything especially on Central Texas streets.

You can find them almost anywhere in alarm clocks, pagers, smoke detectors, motion detectors, ceilings and doorways. Little eyes watching you.

"We were able to see you drive up in the front parking lot. Actually approach the front door and come into the office today," Matt Vickers with Dyezz Surveillance said.

Vickers installs cameras all over Austin. Many of which you'd never have a chance to notice.

"The camera's designed to catch anyone coming into our business. So, that's literally a pinhole camera? All it looks like is a tiny hole in the ceiling that nobody would notice," Vickers said.

It's not just in front of private businesses where you could be watched. Even if you're just walking down the street, chances are someone's looking at you.

A government agency has even requested revolving cameras for downtown buildings to monitor foot traffic and traffic violations.

"The city of Austin will start using cameras to be able to see if people pay their tolls on the new toll roads," Vickers said.

The technology isn't there yet to identify people from video using current facial recognition systems, but it's headed in that direction. The biometric industry's stated long-term goal is to merge their products with closed circuit camera systems to identify individuals from video. Do Texans want their government monitoring them by name as they walk down the street, law abiding, minding their own business? Right now, with votes that may occur at the Legislature this week, Texas is setting the stage for such a scenario -- unless, that is, the Senate decides to protect Texans' privacy and rejects HB 2337. Even then, it will be up to future Legislatures or the courts to confront the privacy invasions inherent in the proliferation of generalized, non-probable-cause-based camera surveillance by the government on this scale.


Steve Bates said...

The operative sentence is this one from Tan's article: "However, the technology is not reliable enough yet for such applications at the moment."

Forgive my vulgarity, but... no fucking kidding; that's an understatement. Reliable facial recognition, like human-level artificial intelligence, will probably always be predicted to be available about "three years from now."

Put on your hat. Take off your sunglasses. Look down at the ground. To a computer, you're suddenly a different person. And I'll wager good money that will be true for the remainder of our lifetimes.

Please understand: I'm not for a moment deprecating the seriousness of the invasion of privacy inherent in ubiquitous videocams. But whoever buys a system of the sort you describe is, for the foreseeable future, being sold a bill of goods.

The worst that may come out of this, and it is plenty bad, is that an attempt to implement such a recognition system will result in the indictment and possibly even conviction of innocent people. Jurors may well be sufficiently persuaded that this pie-in-the-sky technology actually works to convict people based on it... after all, it provides "scientific proof" of who is on the videotape.

One of our jobs is to establish in the public mind the actual limits of such technology. Posing for such a system while wearing various obscuring garb (hats, glasses, beards, etc.) and watching the system fail repeatedly should be sufficient to disabuse anyone of the notion that the damned thing actually works.

And yes, I do have some experience with attempting to recognize patterns automatically in computer graphics, though not recently, and certainly not in the area of biometric recognition. (You couldn't pay me enough to touch a job like that.)

Steve Bates
The Yellow Doggerel Democrat

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes, folks who want to game the system will always be able to do so, I'd guess. It's only the innocent and law abiding whose privacy would be eliminated in the public square.