Facial Recognition In CCTV Cameras: The Bitter Implications

There are many countries whose citizens are used to seeing CCTV cameras on a daily basis everywhere they go. Moscow takes this to another level, installing over a hundred thousand of these devices all over the city, including at the entrances of some apartment buildings. The creative folks at NTechLab collaborated with the local government in December 2016 to implement a facial recognition system right in the spine of this infrastructure. Since then 6 arrests have been made of criminals who have previously been difficult to catch, according to reports coming in on 28 September 2017. But what does this say about a society that is constantly under watch with a technology that can potentially automatically recognize every citizen?

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There is an argument for ensuring that a city has enough surveillance coverage to track the movements and routines of wanted criminals. The arrests made in Moscow prove that the system works as intended, with some of these criminals evading capture for years. However, we can’t ignore the eery idea that there are so many CCTV cameras in one city that the local government can virtually track every movement of each citizen and tourist that enters. A city-wide system like this presents a massive possibility of abuse.

While we may generally agree that murderers should be caught and brought to justice, it’s unsettling to picture a society where the idea of a “lawbreaker” is defined by the same institution that performs such an extensive amount of surveillance. What if, for example, a society that restricts the freedom of expression by banning certain articles of clothing implements this surveillance model? Arrests would be made on individuals who chose to wear the wrong thing on a particular day.

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Before the CCTV experiment, NTechLab made its technology publicly available through a platform called FindFace. Using it, people could find a person’s VKontakte (VK, a Russian version of Facebook) profile by uploading a random photo of them. A group of nefarious people chose to use this software to find adult actress’ VK profiles and contact their family and friends with the hope that they would elicit a negative reaction and make the target’s life difficult. FindFace’s initial intention was far from what it was used for. It was created as a platform for people to find new friends but has instead become a boon to stalkers the world over.

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Both the facial recognition CCTV platform and FindFace were made with the best of intentions. One was made to catch criminals, and the other was created to bring people closer together. But human nature plus the nature of state institutions paints a different picture of how this software will be used. We tend to want to use technology in a way that allows us to have control, not only over our own lives but also control over others (such as a parent installing tracking software in a child’s phone). Used correctly, it can help us keep people safe. However, in the wrong hands, technologies like FindFace and the CCTV-based facial recognition backbone in Moscow can potentially make innocent people’s lives miserable.

Do you think we should implement more or less technology to assist government surveillance? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

4 comments

  1. “When Well-Intentioned Initiatives Fail to Meet Their Goals”
    The way to hell is paved with good intentions.

    Today this technology is used to catch elusive criminals, tomorrow it will be dissidents and political opponents.

    ” in the wrong hands, technologies like FindFace and the CCTV-based facial recognition backbone in Moscow can potentially make innocent people’s lives miserable.”
    The powers that be do not give a damn about ‘making innocent people’s lives miserable’. All they care about is CONTROL. While it is easy and fashionable to single out Russia as the epitome of oppression, let’s not forget the tens of thousands of CCTV cameras installed in London. Let’s not forget other governments that are in a mad rush to install CCTV cameras under the pretext of ‘protecting the public’. The only thing they are interested in is increasing their control over the people. In a few years Russia under Stalin, Germany under the Nazis, Current North Korea, the environment of ‘1984’ will seem like utopia in comparison to the kind of iron grip current technology will allow governments to have.

    Did anybody watch the now-discontinued ‘Person of Interest’ TV drama? The Machine was designed to detect possible terrorism. By the time the show went of the air, The Machine was used as an instrument of oppression.

    • Indeed you are correct about CCTV becoming more pervasive in many other countries. The intention wasn’t to single out Russia, but to speak of a software platform that is being layered on top of Moscow’s CCTV surveillance network. It just so happened that Moscow is among the first to ever implement this, although I do see it catch on in other countries as well, depending on the legal restrictions that local governments around the world have.

  2. This is but a small sample of the possibilities distracting from the actual risks of connecting everything to everything. Consider the possibilities when cameras and sensor networks will be a standard part of the IoT game, not to mention also the recently acclaimed possibility of a “brainternet”. Combine also the tremendous power concentration shown in recent statistics of global wealth concentration and ask yourselves on the probability of all of us heading towards a debt based Corporatist Neo-Techno-Feudalism.And of course, the well known Huxley-Orwell dillema seems rather outdated because such sci-fi scripts are quite rigid been made for certain audiences inside a certain historical context. A Blade Runner kind of chaos is perhaps more original. Yet, this all had been already in the philosophers mind for more than half a century, for those having the ears to hear…
    http://criticalposthumanism.net/genealogy/anders-gunther/

    http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/898/1022

  3. Governments and corporations have an over-dependence on technology and it backfires on them although they never blame themselves. Surveillance cameras at traffic intersections in San Francisco were removed because the government said it was too expensive. The truth I suspect is that such cameras will catch violators who are rich and well-connected, whereas governments only want to use such technology to control its powerless citizens. But if anyone who has access to the videotape can see who’s breaking the law, then the powerful would also have to pay their fines. For this reason, access to the footage will be a crucial issue. .

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