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Welcome To A World Of 500-Megapixel Cameras, And Surveillance Systems Able To Zoom In On Small Objects A Kilometer Away

from the coming-soon-to-a-smartphone-near-you dept

Here on Techdirt, we love digital technology. We love how Moore's Law and its equivalents help drive continual innovation and open up interesting new uses and possibilities. But powerful technology is just a tool, and like any other tool it can be used in good and bad ways. Which brings us to this latest piece of high-tech wizardry: a 500-megapixel cloud-based camera system with built-in AI, developed in China. The English-language Global Times, which is closely aligned with the views of the Chinese government, explains one possible use of such a system:

For example, in a stadium with tens of thousands of people, the camera can shoot a panoramic photo with a clear image of every single human face, the report said.

When integrated with AI, facial recognition, real-time monitoring and cloud computing technology, the camera can detect and identify human faces or other objects based on massive data and instantly find specific targets, according to the report.

The article notes that the camera's impressive capabilities could be applied to "national defense, military and public security". Well, yes, now you come to mention it, they probably could. But it would be wrong to think that only China is active in this field. The Japanese company Fujifilm is also working on surveillance systems with extreme specifications:

The SX800, the first to be launched in this initiative, is a long-range surveillance camera with 40x optical zoom to cover the focal length range from 20mm to 800mm. When combined with the digital zoom of up to 1.25x, the camera can reach the focal length equivalent to 1000mm in long-range surveillance. This means it can capture the vehicle registration plate on a car at about 1km away. Fujifilm's proprietary image stabilization mechanism accurately controls camera shake without any time lag.

It's easy to imagine how 500-megapixel cameras, or surveillance systems that can zoom in on details a kilometer away, might be abused by governments or companies to carry out new levels of covert surveillance. Moreover, there's no sign yet of any slowdown in the constantly increasing power of digital technology. It's only a matter of time before there are 5-gigapixel cameras, or surveillance systems that can zoom in on details ten kilometers away.

As well as producing more powerful systems at the top end of the market, Moore's Law and its equivalents mean that yesterday's leading-edge technology often becomes something found routinely on tomorrow's smartphones. Here's further evidence of that trend:

Samsung Electronics, a world leader in advanced semiconductor technology, today introduced 108 megapixel (Mp) Samsung ISOCELL Bright HMX, the first mobile image sensor in the industry to go beyond 100 million pixels.

The 108-megapixel component was jointly developed with the Chinese company Xiaomi, which said: "We are very pleased that picture resolutions previously available only in a few top-tier DSLR cameras can now be designed into smartphones." Smartphones with 100-megapixel cameras is an exciting prospect, but also one that is bound to bring with it new problems, as Techdirt will doubtless be reporting in due course.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Filed Under: cameras, china, facial recognition, high resolution, surveillance


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  • identicon
    A Guy, 30 Sep 2019 @ 8:38pm

    Sounds like they just took a satellite camera and mounted it on earth to monitor a stadium. I don't think this is new tech to be honest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Sep 2019 @ 8:42pm

      Re:

      Remember covfefe tweeting the picture of the Iranian rocket liftoff accident? Sounds like one of those camera's brought down to terra firma instead of being high above.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Sep 2019 @ 8:46pm

      Re:

      I suspect the satellite images you're referring to are simply using magnification optics to get a closer view of a small area of earth, rather than a further out view with higher pixel density/detail.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        A Guy, 30 Sep 2019 @ 9:00pm

        Re: Re:

        That's possible but I doubt it because it was presented as something we accidentally came across rather than something we were watching because we knew it was happening.

        I don't know, but I would hope that he wouldn't have tweeted a picture we could only acquire if we knew we wanted to be closely watching it to wait for something.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          JoeCool (profile), 1 Oct 2019 @ 5:55am

          Re: Re: Re:

          It's easy to tell when a rocket is preparing to launch, even as long as a hour or two ahead of time. The "unexpected" thing was the explosion, not the watching an Iranian rocket launch. They were probably watching that launch like a hawk for hours before the launch.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 6:07am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            This sounds like a chicken or the egg problem as the best way to notice a rocket launch may often be having a decent satellite monitoring for signs of a rocket launch.

            The soviets were working on this technology decades before I was born as evidenced by that guy who saw the early soviet system malfunctioning to indicate multiple American missile launch and deciding not to report it because he decided it had to be an error.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 7:59am

        Re: Re:

        "I suspect the satellite images you're referring to are simply using magnification optics to get a closer view of a small area of earth, rather than a further out view with higher pixel density/detail."

        magnification optics?
        further out view?

        this makes little sense.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          A Guy, 1 Oct 2019 @ 8:54am

          Re: Re: Re:

          He's referring to two different types of camera. One is capable of focusing on 10,000 different faces at once and the other can only focus on one face at a time.

          Older camera's could provide the same kind of picture but could only focus on one thing at a time. Once you focused on one face the other 9,999 became too blurry. You magnified (focused) one face but could not do that for every face without refocusing the lens one at a time.

          New camera's can focus on more than one thing at once.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 10:36am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Sounds like you are describing digital zoom of an existing photo.

            I would like to see one of these cameras, how many lens does it have?

            Depth of field can blur things in the foreground / background but things at the same distance from the lens are all going to be in focus. Unless you are talking very large distances and objects of interest are close to the edge of the viewing area.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 10:38am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              things at the same distance from the lens are all going to be at the same level of focus.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 7:24pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                If they are mounting their spy cameras farther away, maybe they're getting tired of all the middle fingers pointed at them!

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              A Guy, 1 Oct 2019 @ 11:35am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              There are several different companies trying several different approaches to get to the same goal.

              I don't have an Iphone but I read that the reason it now has the 3 round spots (apertures?) camera is to focus on multiple things.

              The company developing the Lytro Illum camera technology are trying to solve the same problem from a different angle and they haven't given up yet even if the first model isn't perfect.

              Other companies have announced similar initiatives to keep up with the iphone. There isn't just one product working on the technology.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 1 Oct 2019 @ 2:05am

      Re:

      "I don't think this is new tech to be honest."

      It's not. What is new would be the bit about it which makes it affordable. The first microchip was expensive and considered pointless. Today everyone walks around with several examples of practical applications of them on their person.

      Usually the step from "prototype novelty" to "everyday tech" sparks some form of revolution. Some good - like the step from darpanet to the internet network backbone - others very bad. Like the example in the OP which was developed and will be utilized mainly for mass surveillance of the citizenry by an ultra-autocratic oligarchy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      stine, 1 Oct 2019 @ 5:20am

      Re: cameras

      If you want to see what commercial video cameras are capable of, listen to the TED talk from Thomas Hellum of NRK. (just search for slow tv ted talk). In it he describes being able to use their cameras to zoom in on people on mountain tops kilometers away.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 7:27pm

        Re: Re: cameras

        They are a bunch of perverts although they would never admit that pointing instead to National Security!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 2 Oct 2019 @ 3:06am

        Re: Re: cameras

        "If you want to see what commercial video cameras are capable of..."

        The keyword is "zoom". Any good camera, as described by others, above, can focus on an image a hundred miles away barring atmospheric obfuscation. All you need is accurate lens-making.

        However, being able to pan that same camera across a ten thousand strong audience at a distance of 500 km with enough resolution and wide enough focus point to run facial recognition algorithms on the lot of them...THAT is vastly different.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2019 @ 7:17am

          Re: Re: Re: cameras

          "being able to pan that same camera across a ten thousand strong audience at a distance of 500 km with enough resolution and wide enough focus point to run facial recognition algorithms on the lot of them"

          Are you suggesting the scan is performed live rather than post processing? I guess that would save disk space but would require very expensive hardware in order to speed things up a bit. And what is the point of having such capability? I doubt it is for my benefit.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2019 @ 8:07am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: cameras

            To even be able to see a person at 500km, you will be in orbit, and that is a bad angle for facial recognition. Also, note, that spy satellite, which has a mirror rather than a lens, has a resolution of about 3 inches at that range, which means a face would occupy about a 3 by 3 pixel square, so as he says, good luck with facial recognition.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 3 Oct 2019 @ 7:04am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: cameras

              "To even be able to see a person at 500km, you will be in orbit, and that is a bad angle for facial recognition. Also, note, that spy satellite, which has a mirror rather than a lens, has a resolution of about 3 inches at that range..."

              That's a mea maxima culpa on me. I meant to type "500 m". A good reminder I should preview.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 3 Oct 2019 @ 7:00am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: cameras

            "And what is the point of having such capability? I doubt it is for my benefit."

            Oh, the chinese authorities see the point of having this tech. But for the normal citizen who really doesn't need to try to identify every member of, say, a pro-democratic demonstration, there really is no point, true.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 10:32am

      Re:

      The new tech is the image stabilization. That's easier to do in space than mounted on the vibrating planet.

      Xaiomi and Huawei have been working on similar tech to stabilize zoom in cellphone cameras, so there's a wide angle camera that tracks the frame while the telephoto stays on-target for the closeup details. The telephoto can then scan across the range mapped by the wide angle image to add more details from the surrounding light area as that passes over the sensor. Pretty neat tech, and once it can be integrated with 500k video, you've got something that can gather high definition live data that ML could then mine on the fly for images of interest, keeping stored data to a minimum while allowing a huge area to be scanned in detail by a simple phone.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Protesters step on images of Mike's face, 30 Sep 2019 @ 8:50pm

    Another piece in which Techdirt embraces surveillance.

    You mention the camera with only awe, no hint of worry about the ever increasing surveillance system it's more hardware for, and end as typical, with hope that future gadgets will provide Techdirt with more pieces.

    Can't any of you EVER stop to THINK on the obvious trend? In a few years, as I've long said, you'll have less privacy than a rat in cage. No hint of worry here, though!


    By the way, if screen name upsets you (inspired by recent Hong Kong protests where malcontents walk on Xi's face), it would edify for you to analyze WHY and then try to relate that to your advocating or at least ignoring disrespect to flags. That riles people and you know it; you delight when others are upset, but when turned on you, think it's out of bounds! -- So flag-burning and all is best avoided, even if "legal", because civilization is more complex than can be specified.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Sep 2019 @ 8:53pm

      Re: Another piece in which Techdirt embraces surveillance.

      Ironically, the first article specifically calls out the privacy concerns and potential abuse of these cameras, but you couldn't be bothered...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 7:32pm

        Re: Re: Another piece in which Techdirt embraces surveillance.

        Carry a mirror if you see someone three miles off in your spotting scope looking at you with their's, flash the sun in their eyes magnified X 1000. That should piss them off!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Sep 2019 @ 9:15pm

      Re: Another piece in which Blue balls embraces fascism.

      Bro you are the poster boy for the word collaborator.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Sep 2019 @ 9:43pm

      Re: Another piece in which Techdirt embraces surveillance.

      You mention the camera with only awe, no hint of worry about the ever increasing surveillance system

      You apparently have a serious reading comprehension deficit. It's pretty obvious that the article is highlighting the risks of how such cameras can be abused.

      You're really really bad at this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 1 Oct 2019 @ 12:56am

        Re: Re:

        Once again, he addresses the article in his head that he wishes was written, rather than the one everyone else is reading.

        That's why he's so bad at this - he's looking at a different reality to everybody else.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 1:04am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Mind you, when it comes to intrusive surveillance technology that would track IP addresses to users so the RIAA can shake down even more dead grandmothers, suddenly blue is a frothing-at-the-mouth advocate!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          murgatroyd (profile), 1 Oct 2019 @ 9:28am

          He should run for president! Or... maybe he already did....

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            bob, 1 Oct 2019 @ 10:49am

            Re:

            While I find your comment funny the sad truth is there is probably too many words on this website for the pumpkin in chief to bother trying to read it. If he did read this blog you know he would tweet about it.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 7:36pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I think he's trying to read it with binoculars and reading way past the lines.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 2:39am

    Smartphones with 100-megapixel cameras is an exciting prospect, but also one that is bound to bring with it new problems,

    Yes, like the sensor resolution exceeding the angular resolution of the lens, especially with longer focal lengths needed to focus on distant objects. Also, keeping the camera steady enough to maximise resolution is going to be a problem at least for smart phone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Carlie Coats, 1 Oct 2019 @ 5:32am

      Re:

      Doing the arithmetic, this corresponds to a sensor-pixel size of about 5.0e-9M, and according to the equations about optical resolution, a perfect lens of at least 60M (larger if the lens is not itself perfect, as almost always happens).

      Not practical.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Carlie Coats, 1 Oct 2019 @ 6:25am

        Resolution

        That was assuming a cell-phone sized (1.2mm) sensor, BTW. If you use a larger sensor, the lens can be smaller, so this is in fact somewhat practical for fixed installations.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      A Guy, 1 Oct 2019 @ 5:58am

      Re:

      Hey, maybe they got those visual wavelength negative refractive index materials working! I doubt it though, that would have been bigger news or incredibly hushed up depending upon who made the discovery.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 4:53am

    Alternate Subhead

    "from the coming-soon-to-a-smartphone-near-you dept"

    from the coming-soon-to-Ring-Doorcams-everywhere dept

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    A. Notheranony, 1 Oct 2019 @ 5:09am

    "privacy" in public

    We need to make it legal to wear disguises or masks in public places. Did you ever wonder why it is so common to see people wearing surgical masks in foreign protest movements?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 1 Oct 2019 @ 5:59am

      Re: "privacy" in public

      I don't know why they bother... they all look alike anyway. ;)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 6:48am

      Re: "privacy" in public

      "We need to make it legal to wear disguises or masks in public places. Did you ever wonder why it is so common to see people wearing surgical masks in foreign protest movements?"

      Did you ever wonder why it is so common to see people wearing surgical masks in highly polluted environments?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 8:18am

      Re: "privacy" in public

      Those masks are common in every-day activities in those countries due to pollution concerns. I'm sure a few are worn to hide their faces but many are likely worn in a futile effort to protect against tear gas. I wear one when traveling not because I want to hide from cameras but because my sinuses are sensitive to the dry air on aircraft and elsewhere.

      The world is a bit more nuanced than you think.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 7:45pm

        Re: Re: "privacy" in public

        Masks conceal identity from cop's analyzing video data post protest for purposes of arrests! Also masks can shield germs and ingestion of some radioactivity and smoke inhalation from protest fires and maybe teargas or pepper spray. Wear masks!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 6:50am

    "It's easy to imagine how 500-megapixel cameras, or surveillance systems that can zoom in on details a kilometer away, might be abused by governments or companies to carry out new levels of covert surveillance."

    And this seems to be the only reason for the Chinese government to be concerned about air pollution.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 7:00am

    Forget the government abuse, I want one!

    I want one of these as a security camera for my back yard. Forget facial recognition. I want it to watch each individual blade of grass and spec of dirt in my garden for hints of unhealthy pests and weeds. I'm sure AI can be used to spot all sorts of problems before anyone notices.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 2 Oct 2019 @ 3:11am

      Re: Forget the government abuse, I want one!

      There's a good wiki article on "agricultural drones" if that's what you're after. Using an algorithm to scan images for telltale signs of fungal infections and pests is old hat. It's vastly less complex than facial recognition tech.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 8:23am

    China is like a surveillance lab, use hd camera,s , take photo,s of every person,
    in 5 years time there,ll be real time database,s of every chinese person,
    if someone goes, anywhere on a bus, a car on street or a road,
    on a train their journey will be recorded .
    where they went ,who they talked to .it will be almost living in an open
    air prison .
    Every year cpu,s ,pc,s and camera,s get cheaper and more powerful.
    China does not have gdpr, any data they collect will be put into a database .
    and can be used in 20-30 years to gather evidence to use against any
    potential protestor or human rights activists .

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 12:14pm

    Does this mean that they will finally find Waldo?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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