Be quiet: the surveillance cameras might hear you

ars technica | June 24, 2008
By Jonathan M. Gitlin

Although crime statistics point to the fact that law-and-order issues are actually less of a problem now than in the past, the general public's perception remains one convinced that muggery and buggery hides behind every street corner. Politicans and the media stoke these fears, and we get hastily made laws and policies enacted as a result. Over in the UK, the trend over the past two decades has been to abrogate day-to-day policing of the streets to an army of CCTV cameras. Soon, if scientists have their way, the cameras will be able to train their focus on suspicious sounds automatically with new AI technology.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK are working on refining AI software that currently allows the cameras to identify visual patterns associated with law-breaking. The plan is to add an audio capability, so that the noise of breaking glass (for example) would cause the camera to take notice and alert an operator. Eventually it is hoped that the AI software would be even more sensitive, according to Dr David Brown, one of the researchers, speaking to the BBC: "Later versions will get cleverer as time goes on, perhaps eventually being able to identify specific words being said or violent sounds."

I'm not so sure I like the sound of that. We've already covered the ineffectual nature of CCTV cameras in crime fighting, and I'm just paranoid enough that I don't like the idea of cameras that could pick up on target words and film people at will. Not that such concerns over civil liberties seem to be shared by the current UK government, whose 11 years in power have done a fine job of shedding the human rights credentials they wore so proudly during so many years in the wilderness of opposition.

Not that such fears are all that ill-founded; there are growing concerns that some local councils have been making inappropriate use of their CCTV systems. According to the BBC, local governments in the South of the UK have been taking advantage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on their citizens for a host of reasons, including benefit fraud, dog fouling, and illegal taxi operations. It was even used by one overzealous local authority to monitor the movements of a family so the council could determine whether their children truly did live in the catchment area for their school.

Thankfully for us paranoid, pro-civil liberties types, Dr. Brown's work is still only in the realm of academic research. The grant, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council—analogous to the NSF in the US—will run for three years. The successful implementation of such a system might prove quite popular with repressive or authoritarian regimes across the world though, since plastering the streets with such devices is even easier than employing an army of secret police to write things down about their neighbors. Brave new world indeed.