Here's looking at you . . . and you, and you, and you . . .

There were 500,000 cameras peering at the citizens of London as they went about their daily business .

Sep 1st, 2005

There were 500,000 cameras peering at the citizens of London as they went about their daily business . . . is anybody looking? of course not.

n light of the recent tragic bombings in ­London and elsewhere, I guess we have all become more aware of the acute potential for disaster as we continue with our everyday lives. Like well-trained airplane pilots, we need to check our surroundings constantly when traveling and have an “escape route” in mind-a sort of “Plan B,” if you like. On public transit systems, it’s probably wise to carry a minimal “emergency kit,” including, say, a small flashlight, a surgical mask, and a small bottle of water. Like the Boy Scouts, we should always be prepared. The popular press is full of such advice and much of it has serious intent and obvious merit.

So much for looking out for ourselves-but then who is looking out for us? The answer is that many people and organizations are keeping an eye on us through the widespread use of inexpensive video cameras and cheap videotape. My wife and I were in London a few months before the July bombings and I remarked then on the number of surveillance cameras, clearly visible as we walked to tourist sites, through museums, entered theaters and restaurants, patronized ATMs, and so on. The British, long famous for their “life must go on” spirit, hardly seem to notice the ubiquitous cameras and accept their use almost entirely without reservation.

According to a follow-up story in the Wall Street Journal, at the time of the July bombings, there were 500,000 cameras (yes, you read it right, half a million cameras) peering at the ­citizens of London as they went about their daily business whether harmless or harmful. “In a single day, a person could expect to be filmed 300 times,” the newspaper noted. By some estimates, there are at least another two million cameras scattered around the rest of the U.K. And, there may be one ­camera for every four Britons by the end of this decade. “Videotape at 11, anyone?”

Is anybody looking? Of course not. Very few of what the British call CCTV (closed-circuit TV) systems are actively viewed 24/7. In fact, some studies suggest that one person can effectively monitor no more than ten screens. Do the math-there’s no way we could provide enough humans to keep a continuous eye on the populace. Most of these systems generate tape that can be scrutinized after an event has taken place. Your ATM most likely has a camera recording your actions as you make a withdrawal but no one is actually watching you at that precise moment. These systems are defensive and may provide a needed deterrent to the casual criminal.

So the next stage is serious automation of surveillance, which may have greater benefits in picking out the bad guys before they can act but may have greater dangers in violating the civil rights of innocent citizens. Do a Google search on “automated surveillance” and you’ll get about a million hits. There are even efforts being made to use cameras in pilotless drones, some no bigger than a model airplane, to survey traffic and sporting events. See a report by my colleague John Keller in Military & Aerospace Electronics, July 2004: “Unmanned vehicles: one of the hottest technologies going.”

I’m not going to get into the impending civil rights morass here but you may wish to check out the somewhat radical Web site www.observingsurveillance.org or a report on automated surveillance posted by former NIST researcher Andrew Kalukin at free.hostdepartment.com/c/citsurv/surveillance.html. And there’s much more if you follow the links from those Web sites. You’ll have to make up your own mind on this matter.

The field of automated surveillance is still in its infancy, of course, but there is clearly much need for serious research and development, and the investigation of subsequent business opportunities. All you need do is start looking now for those opportunities. No matter what your views are on the invasion-of-­privacy issues there is always the potential of aiding the war against terrorism. And that’s very worthwhile in my book.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
jnbairstow@verizon.net

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