Surveillance cameras will soon be unrecognizable

Surveillance cameras will soon be unrecognisable – time for an urgent public conversation
Camera never lies. Credit: sdecoret

It is often argued that the UK is the most surveilled country on the planet. This may or may not have been the case in the past but there are certainly now millions of surveillance cameras in public spaces—not to mention private buildings and homes. Behind those lenses they are changing in ways that people are often barely aware of, with privacy implications that should be widely discussed as a matter of urgency.

Automatic face recognition is currently the hot ticket in this industry, having been introduced in a number of cities around the world, in the US, China, Germany and Singapore. The police argue that piloting such systems has allowed them to test the technology to help identify potential terrorists and other known offenders. Yet this has to be weighed against different concerns. The broadest is our expectation of privacy and anonymity in public places—and whether this is a step too far towards our every move being visible to the state.

Then there is the question of how well these face recognition systems work at present. Their at recognising faces has been shown to be as low as 2%. Linked to this is an inbuilt bias within the software that makes the technology far less accurate at identifying darker skinned people and women. It therefore has the potential to exacerbate tensions between ethnic minorities and the police.

This could be compounded by another contentious issue, which is the police using so-called "watch list" databases of against which it is trying to match live images. Typically these databases include policing images of people taken in custody, who may never have been convicted of a crime and are unlikely to have consented to their data being used in this way.

For these reasons the use of automatic face recognition software has been very controversial, and until the technology is more reliable we should probably be very cautious in how we use it. There have been two significant pilots in the UK in recent times, in the south of Wales and in London. Both are the subject of judicial review actions, brought respectively by civil liberties organisations Liberty and Big Brother Watch, which are due to conclude in the coming months.

In the US, meanwhile, the city of San Francisco banned the use of face recognition in its public systems in May. Other American cities are expected to follow suit—with face recognition software currently being used in the likes of Chicago, New York and Detroit. The technology has also generated much debate in Canada, where it is in use in Toronto and some other cities.

Tomorrow's world

Face recognition highlights bigger questions around which types of surveillance cameras and systems are acceptable to society. This question is complicated by the fact that surveillance cameras are becoming more sophisticated and computerised without necessarily looking much different. There is no signage or information that tells us about their enhanced capabilities, which means the activities behind them become less transparent.

Surveillance cameras will soon be unrecognisable – time for an urgent public conversation
Credit: MY Stock

As the technology has been miniaturised and costs have fallen, new types of cameras have emerged, including body-worn video devices, drones, dash and head cams. At the same time, imaging and recording techniques have become more and more standardised. This has allowed for greater connectivity between systems and has raised quality to the point that images can be trustworthy evidence in legal proceedings.

Besides face recognition, we are seeing the emergence of cameras capable of object tracking and recognition, plus advances in noise or smell analysis. Police forces in the US and UK have been trialling systems that predict how likely individuals are to commit a crime. It is all a quantum leap away from the old CCTV cameras with which we are familiar.

Governance and regulation is having to evolve quickly to keep abreast of this environment. To this end, surveillance cameras in England and Wales are now regulated by the specialist office of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner; along with the Information Commissioner's Office, which has responsibility for overseeing data protection in the UK. Also relevant to the use of face recognition systems is the Office of the Birometrics Commissioner.

Surveillance Camera Day

Most surveys suggest that the public are in favour of basic CCTV cameras, but the question for those who set the rules is whether citizens would still support these systems if they knew what they were becoming capable of. Judging by most reactions in the media to face , it seems not.

I suspect that most of the advances in technology could be used to improve the system if they were regulated properly, but cameras must be seen to be delivered in the interests of society and with the support of voters. So where should policymakers draw a line in the sand?

To help with this, a world first is about to take place in the UK on June 20: Surveillance Camera Day. This is not intended to be a celebration of cameras but to allow people to influence how they develop by raising awareness about their capabilities, merits and consequences. It will include everything from open days at a number of CCTV control centres to public factsheets to discussions in the media. Everyone can contribute to the conversation through #cameraday2019.

The direction of travel for does not need to be towards a defined technological determinism where it inevitably becomes more and more intrusive. Surveillance Camera Day represents an opportunity for everyone to help shape the discussion. It will be interesting to observe how the general public and other players respond.


Explore further

San Francisco to vote on banning face recognition technology

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Jun 18, 2019
This is progress whether we like it or not. Progress has never been stopped in the history of the world. Sometimes it is temporarily slowed down but never stopped.
We think we have freedom but real freedom means I can walk down the darkest alley anywhere in a city and be safe and I don't mean feel safe, I mean be safe.
That kind of freedom can only come from a surveillance system. And I don't mean just facial recognition but the way you walk or talk also.

Jun 18, 2019
This is progress whether we like it or not. Progress has never been stopped in the history of the world. Sometimes it is temporarily slowed down but never stopped.
We think we have freedom but real freedom means I can walk down the darkest alley anywhere in a city and be safe and I don't mean feel safe, I mean be safe.
That kind of freedom can only come from a surveillance system. And I don't mean just facial recognition but the way you walk or talk also.

From the way you talk, I bet as you walk down that alley, trip over your own foot, you most certainly will. Now, what surveillance system, would make you safe from that?

Jun 18, 2019
From the way you talk, I bet as you walk down that alley, trip over your own foot, you most certainly will. Now, what surveillance system, would make you safe from that?


From the way YOU talk you have no idea what technology will be able to do. Obviously if I am hurt a ambulance will be dispatched to my location. If I am not hurt but I tripped over a obstacle. The obstacle will be removed/fixed so it does not happen to someone else. If there is no physical reason for the fall, it will be noted, and if I fall to often, I will be notified I should see a doctor.
Just out of curiosity why are you so hostile? Do you have a mental condition and should seek psychological help?

Jun 19, 2019
The psychological toll this will have on humans will be worse than anything it prevents.

Jun 19, 2019
The psychological toll this will have on humans will be worse than anything it prevents.

Yes, this would be devastating, knowing that THEY know I like vanilla ice cream better than strawberry!

Jun 19, 2019
We think we have freedom but real freedom means I can walk down the darkest alley anywhere in a city and be safe and I don't mean feel safe, I mean be safe.
That kind of freedom can only come from a surveillance system. And I don't mean just facial recognition but the way you walk or talk also.

You have weird conception of freedom. To me, freedom means being free to do anything. I feel most free being lone at home or somewhere deep in a forest. I can go naked if I please and pick my nose all I want.

Freedom doesn't mean safe. I feel safe at home but certainly not always in a forest. I imagine skydiving would give me a free feeling but it is not safe either.

I rather take streets with no lights than mass surveillance. If it's for me hard to spot a criminal etc. it's also hard for them to spot me if I run away. Mass surveillance won't stop someone hurting you, it will only help them get caught.

Jun 19, 2019
Mass surveillance won't stop someone hurting you, it will only help them get caught.


You have weird conception about crime. It is very rightly said
"It's not the severity of the punishment that deters crime but rather the certainty of getting caught."

Freedom doesn't mean safe. I feel safe at home but certainly not always in a forest. I imagine skydiving would give me a free feeling but it is not safe either.


Freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
If you always get hurt or killed when you perform a certain act, then you are actually psychologically refrained from doing it hence you lose some freedom. Example if the government shoots ALL people that speaks against it, then you are not free to speak against that government.
FEELING FREE plays no part in actual freedom.

Jun 19, 2019
Freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

And I think surveillance causes hindrance so it restrics freedom.

Jun 19, 2019
Freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

And I think surveillance causes hindrance so it restrics freedom.


Yes you are right! If I am a criminal, I will not be free to do as I please, if I am being filmed!
In another sense you are right to. There is no such thing as perfect freedom. Example I can't flap my arms and fly. Freedom will always be a trade off between the two or more options.
I am guessing here but I think you are confusing freedom with your personal privacy.(The privacy you lose, if you are being recorded.) And that is a legitimate concern.

Jun 19, 2019
Yes, there cannot be perfect freedom because ones freedrom should not harm others etc. but I'm not confusing it with privacy even though they are closely related. If there's an organisation, was it gov or not, that's doing mass surveillance, they are gathering a lot of information about people. Was it criminal or not, it bothers me and I would surely change my behavior.

Simple example: One can throw pretty bad jokes among friends and those talks going public through some leaking surveillance data can cause serious damage to certain people. There has been many such recent cases with politicians and their recorded conversations. Imagine if your every conversation outside your own home, or even there, is recorded.

Jun 19, 2019
. Imagine if your every conversation outside your own home, or even there, is recorded.


So what if every word I uttered and every move I made was recorded? That recording in and of itself does not limit my freedom. It is the use of that recording that can motivate others to limit my freedom. In other words it is the consequences from what is recorded that matter.

So the issue with recordings is not freedom but rather privacy.
We lose more of our privacy everyday. That can and will not be stopped because it is consequence of advancing technology. As I said earlier " Progress has never been stopped in the history of the world. Sometimes it is temporarily slowed down but never stopped."

I have a theory about how that will be handled in the near future that I am 99.9% sure will happen but that is a whole other ballgame.


Jun 20, 2019
So what if every word I uttered and every move I made was recorded? That recording in and of itself does not limit my freedom. It is the use of that recording that can motivate others to limit my freedom. In other words it is the consequences from what is recorded that matter.

So the issue with recordings is not freedom but rather privacy.

It's a matter of both if concerns about privacy restricts my freedom. Yes, the recording itself doesn't do anything but neither does recording something stop any crimes. It is the fact that there will be data collection and as a normal person you really cannot know who has access to that data and what are the hidden motives to collect it. For example, what if the government secretly monitored eating and sports habits of people and then suddenly put out a huge tax for unhealthiness. Only way to prevent stuff like this is to give them as little data as possible, which means that I would restrict my own freedom because of privacy concerns

Jun 20, 2019
So the issue with recordings is not freedom but rather privacy.


The way you state it, it is a matter of having a unjustified persecution complex. Since you state this or that could happen (but is not happening now) and you state that somthing that is not happening presently restricts your freedom, than that is a fantasy that is restricting your freedom not present day reality.

I guess that definition I gave earlyer should be ammended like this
"Freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without (real, not imagined) hindrance or (real, not imagined) restraint."

Jun 20, 2019
Yes, I'm a bit tin foil when it comes to privacy. I have been semi-using vpn, auto-deleting cookies and not running scripts in the internet for long. I never shared anything but few things in any social media platform. Now with all the major facebook data leak stuff etc., I can be happy with my choices :)

Little bit same goes to public places. I keep a lot of things to myself. Maybe this will help me someday when there's surveillance everywhere.

Jun 20, 2019
Since you state this or that could happen (but is not happening now) and you state that somthing that is not happening presently restricts your freedom, than that is a fantasy that is restricting your freedom not present day reality.

So if there's someone saying that I will kill you after 10 years if you do something. That is a fantasy restricting your freedom because the actual punishment is not happening now?¨

With surveillance you can never know what happens because everything is recorded. You can basically be punished from doing something which is now ok but in future not. Lets say I date a black girl and in few years some right-wing racists take control and start to jail people for dating other races. I would be jailed only because I didn't hide my personal life good enough

Jun 20, 2019
Lets say I date a black girl and in few years some right-wing racists take control and start to jail people for dating other races. I would be jailed only because I didn't hide my personal life good enough


That is persecution complex. Perhaps you will be jailed because you were not recorded or because you did not date a black woman.

Jun 20, 2019
Yes, I'm a bit tin foil when it comes to privacy. I have been semi-using vpn, auto-deleting cookies and not running scripts in the internet for long. I never shared anything but few things in any social media platform. Now with all the major facebook data leak stuff etc., I can be happy with my choices :)

Little bit same goes to public places. I keep a lot of things to myself. Maybe this will help me someday when there's surveillance everywhere.


What you are not understanding is that we are losing a little more of our privacy everyday and that loss is inevitable with the march of progress. Plus if you do ANYTHING on the internet it can someday be traced back to you. As super quantum computers become a reality they will even know how long you spent reading this page today. (cookies or not) There is no hiding, no anonymity, no matter how smart you are. Since there is no anonymity all the internet con artists that ever was, will be able to be caught and perhaps prosecuted.

Jun 20, 2019
That is persecution complex. Perhaps you will be jailed because you were not recorded or because you did not date a black woman.

Indeed, you can never know. That's why it's a big no no for me.

What your not understanding is that we are losing a little more of our privacy everyday and that loss is inevitable with the march of progress.

I understand that you think so but I strongly disagree. I believe that surveillance and face recognition will become more common and a must in big public events to stop things like terrorist attacks from happening. But I see no reason to apply this to everywhere. Streets are rather safe here as if.

Yes, with lot of work one can combine information from many sources but even with quantum computers they have no way of knowing all the ip addresses I used to read this site. Hopefully...

Jun 21, 2019

that loss is inevitable with the march of progress.


I understand that you think so but I strongly disagree.


You can disagree all you want but 10,000(?) years of history has shown that progress can not be stopped.

I believe that surveillance and face recognition will become more common and a must in big public events to stop things like terrorist attacks from happening. But I see no reason to apply this to everywhere. Streets are rather safe here as if.


As major events with surveillance and face recognition stop terror attacks, that won't stop terrorists. They will just move the attacks to places that are not under surveillance. Which of course means more surveillance places. (A repeating cycle)

no way of knowing all the ip addresses I used to read this site. Hopefully...

Hope springs eternal even when you know it's fruitless.

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