Computerized Surveillance Devices Open Their Eyes

Large cities now have thousands of CCTVs, automated surveillance cameras, scanning the crowds. But who is going to watch all of these endless images, looking for evil-doers?

In his frightening 1948 novel 1984, George Orwell ponders this question with respect to the telescreens that surveil society:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Thanks to hardworking Carnegie Mellon University researchers, fully automated computerized surveillance may someday replace the easily distracted humans who currently peer at us on CCTVs, and answer Winston Smith's question with "everyone, all the time". And these systems might actually be better at "activity forecasting" than people usually are.

(Computerized surveillance can perform "activity forecasting")

"The main applications are in video surveillance, both civil and military," Alessandro Oltramari, a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon who has a Ph.D. from Italy's University of Trento, told CNET yesterday.

Oltramari and fellow researcher Christian Lebiere say automatic video surveillance can monitor camera feeds for suspicious activities like someone at an airport or bus station abandoning a bag for more than a few minutes. "In this specific case, the goal for our system would have been to detect the anomalous behavior," Oltramari says.

Think of it as a much, much smarter version of a red light camera: the unblinking eye of computer software that monitors dozens or even thousands of security camera feeds could catch illicit activities that human operators -- who are expensive and can be distracted or sleepy -- would miss. It could also, depending on how it's implemented, raise similar privacy and civil liberty concerns.

From Automatic Action Recognition in Video Surveillance via CNet.

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