Whether or not you believe that CCTV surveillance makes the world a safer place, there's a big problem with deploying it more widely: you still need someone to look at that footage and pick out the things of interest, and it's much harder adding new personnel than adding new cameras.
Techdirt has already reported on one attempt to get around this problem, based on smartphones and crowdsourcing. The other obvious approach is to automate the process. That is, to develop systems that can be trained to analyze CCTV streams -- perhaps in real time -- in order to try to spot activities that look "suspicious" in some sense, which can then be passed on to human operators for further evaluation and possibly action.
That's exactly the aim of the European Commission's INDECT research project -- short for the rather unwieldy "Intelligent information system supporting observation, searching and detection for security of citizens in urban environment." Here's how it describes itself:
The aim of INDECT is to develop a platform for: the registration and exchange of data associated with threat recognition, acquisition of multimedia content, inteligent processing of information related to automatic threat detection and especially terroristic threats as well as recognition of serious criminal behaviour or violence. New techniques for intelligent analysis of data will allow recognizing such situations, and giving alert before it is too late. The obiective is also to recognise danger events that could lead to terrorist attacks (e.g. left luggage at an airport, automatic recognition of dangerous tools). The definitions of situations and their parameters will be provided by police department.
As this makes clear, the emphasis is very much on analyzing data quickly enough to act on it before crimes are committed or attacks are carried out. However, that last sentence about "parameters" being provided by the police will naturally raise concerns that this is simply a chance for the latter to deploy yet more technology in ways that will be harmful to things like privacy and civil liberties.
To its credit, the INDECT project seems well aware that its work raises important ethical questions:
All of the research activities within INDECT project are carried out so as to ensure the appropriate balance between the protection of the rights of the individual and the protection of society. INDECT research project has an Ethics Board, which was established to ensure strict compliance of research outcomes with already established rules concerning privacy, data protection, to ensure genuine informed consent of all those participating in the project, and to ensure that information is only used for its intended research purpose. It is also responsible for managing and monitoring all ethical aspects of the project. These aspects include the promotion of gender equality.
That comes from a page on INDECT's Web site devoted entirely to ethical issues. The closing paragraph of that section is as follows:
The sentence: "if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear" is only true if every aspect of the criminal justice system works perfectly, on every occasion. Tools based on INDECT project research outcomes will provide EU Member States with the technology to ensure that decisions around public safety are based on the maximum amount of relevant information available.
This suggests that the project's participants believe that having even more information available about members of the public is not only justified by the deeply-flawed logic "if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear", but that governments have what amounts to a duty to gather that information in order to make that argument true. It's a wonderfully circular piece of reasoning that totally overlooks the possibility that a better solution might be to gather less information about people in public spaces.
Sadly, it seems that, alongside the copyright ratchet, which only ever allows this intellectual monopoly to get stronger and longer, we now have a surveillance ratchet, which can only envisage large-scale snooping become ever-more pervasive and intrusive.
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