“Intelligent” software is making CCTV more effective, but would you want it watching you?by Philip Hunter / April 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is four years since Britain’s then information commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned we were slipping almost imperceptibly into a surveillance society. He singled out CCTV, in which Britain is the world leader, with 10 per cent of all the world’s cameras (about one for every 12 people) covering large swathes of our cities. The countless anecdotal reports of CCTV’s growing intrusion into the fabric of everyday existence made my own experience, on Christmas Day 2008, hardly unique.
I had just crossed the local railway line via a public right of way, taking me briefly onto the platform, when a voice boomed from the station speaker system: “What are you doing here, there are no trains today?” “I’m just walking by,” I muttered (I assume there was a microphone somewhere, though I didn’t see one). Grudgingly, the person in a central control room miles away allowed me to continue. Clearly the monitoring system had been programmed to identify any presence on a station platform that day as suspicious.
CCTV footage used to be pretty useless because it was such poor quality and time-consuming to analyse. Police often failed to arrest criminals even when they were caught, supposedly red-handed, on camera. But new technology has made it possible to detect incidents as they occur or even before. Researchers at Reading University have developed CCTV monitoring software capable of identifying, say, an abandoned package, and following the person who left it while they are still within range of a camera. Using technology first developed 20 years ago for burglar alarms, these systems are programmed to distinguish between different types of movement, and identify those defined as unusual—like depositing an object which remains unmoved for a given period, or movements such as frequent bathroom visits on an aeroplane. The latter might have detected the Detroit bomber last December before he tried to explode his device.