Camera Surveillance of the Public

In China, a complex system is being developed to assign “social credit” scores to residents. The scores will reflect the value of an individual’s condoned or condemned behaviors. The system will use surveillance cameras and perhaps microphones in public areas to record what passersby are doing and with whom they are meeting. The recordings are be subjected to facial recognition so that government officials can identify who needs to be chastised, commended, or subjected to further investigation.

Because of poor security practices in a Beijing area containing many embassies, a large database of video surveillance was left unguarded. The database contains video clips of those walking by and it can track their route as they pass camera after camera. Some of the database records have links to the criminal records of passersby who were identified by the system’s facial recognition ability. China plans to expand the system into most population centers, and will have 626 million cameras feeding the social credit system by 2020.

China’s phobia of uncontrolled public discussion is shared by many of the nations under autocratic rule (e.g. North Korea, Venezuela, Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Philippines, and others). China has been promoting its public surveillance technologies and has been contracted to build a Chinese version of the internet in 38 countries. China also found 17 other countries willing to buy a version of the public video surveillance system used in Beijing.

China is not alone in relying on technology to curb unruly residents. The UK has a network of 1.85 million surveillance cameras, of which 420,000 are deployed in London. As of 2005, there were 17,000 surveillance cameras in Chicago. Houston has a large network of cameras, but refuses to publish the number because it is a “sanctuary city”. New York City has 4,500 cameras, mostly privately owned and operated.

Within the U.S., many merchants use surveillance cameras to help protect their business and employees. They help reduce shrinkage (aka “shoplifting”) because potential thieves are aware of the conspicuous, domed cameras in the ceiling, and it is not always possible to find a space that the cameras are not recording.

Public buildings such as government offices, libraries, parking structures, financial institutions, hospitals, and highways with heavy traffic are commonly equipped with cameras to detect incidents that are a threat to public safety.

Law enforcement usually is welcome to use the video captured by both private and public networks of camera systems. Surveillance cameras must not be placed in areas where the public has an expectation of privacy, such as changing rooms and lavatories. Anywhere else seems fair game since it is in the public spaces.

Surveillance cameras are also used in large scale public gatherings such as the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where “FindFace” (a facial recognition product) located 100 people who were in the database of offenders. FindFace claims a record of 95% accuracy. Ninety five percent may be insufficient to satisfy a court, but it provides a very useful head start for police trying to locate suspects.

Surveillance technology includes both fixed camera systems (bolted to wall, ceiling, or lamp posts) and recently by drones. U.S. law enforcement and firefighters are using drones equipped with FLIR Infrared sensors to detect body heat of a concealed person, or a high-powered zoom camera to capture details at a distance. Directional microphones seem to be off limits, at least for public surveillance.

It is clear that surveillance systems are well developed and could be augmented to capture even greater detail (including audio). A surveillance network could be steered by artificial intelligence to act on clues picked up by other elements in its network. If it became the norm, such aggressive AI surveillance would draw strong public opposition.

Surveillance systems – cameras, wiretaps, or recording of internet traffic – should not be used for political purposes, but Russia (Fancy Bear) did that to John Podesta during the 2016 election cycle. About 50,000 of Podesta’s emails were released by Wikileaks.com. There seems to be no collection of countries where surveillance is used only for righteous enforcement of the law. Progress on federal privacy legislation would be very helpful in setting the limits of legitimate use of surveillance.

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