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I spy with my little eye…

by Archives February 14, 2001
Have you ever had the feeling that somebody was following you around all day? Felt like you were being watched? Maybe you were!
Short, tall, sexy or frumpy, we’ve practically all spent some time under the watchful gaze of a security camera. They’re in the metros, scattered around shopping malls and all over both Concordia campuses.
There was a time when video cameras were wired to television screens and used to monitor the activity in a given locale. Camera technology then evolved to a point where the cameras could be controlled from a switchboard so that they swivelled and panned, zoomed in on and out, and could record and store images for review. Nowadays video cameras can capture even more information than ever before. In fact, they can actually identify who you are.
Easy identification
With a boom in digital technologies, video cameras can now grab a frame of somebody’s face, digitalize it and feed it into a computer where it can be compared to a database of profiles.
This means is that surveillance technologies can now convert the images of faces they capture into a mathematical chain or string of bytes which can then be paired on a numeric basis to see if it can be matched with another.
The name of the existing program capable of performing this interesting task is FaceTrac. It is produced by a company called Viisage and installed by a Pennsylvania firm called Graphco Technologies. The actual technology, however, was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
FaceTrac’s first well-publicized use was during the superbowl this year. With the permission of the NFL, the Tampa Bay police department decided that it would make use of the technology by planting cameras at the ticket wickets of the Raymond James stadium. The idea was to test out the new technology by running the photos they had captured against state and federal mug shot databanks.
Great for football
72,000 fans who had come out to watch the game were filmed by these cameras and electronically inspected. A total of 19 matches were made and nobody was arrested.
While police were happy with the results, the NFL hasn’t seemed to have drawn much criticism for obliging to the police request and chances are that very few of those who attended the game had any concerns, let alone any clue, that they were being filmed at the stadium entrance.
According to Viisage, the company responsible for FaceTrac software, the technology works well even if someone is wearing sunglasses, grows a beard or shaves their moustache. In fact chief executive Tom Colatosti has gone so far as to call FaceTrac ‘disguise-proof.’ The program apparently distinguishes 128 different facial features upon which it bases its codes.
Possible applications of a program like FaceTrac seem fruitful at first glance. For example, it could allow companies to set up video cameras at their doors and ensure that only registered personnel entered the company premises.
On the flip side, FaceTrac technology could prove to be a system with great potential for abuse. The software could make it possible to track individuals throughout a camera-fied city for any reason.
It could eventually prove to be a crime fighting tool which will make police work easier. Or it could be used in ways which infringe upon the privacy of an individual. Naturally, if no mug shots of an individual are available for comparison, the task of identifying somebody becomes more of a challenge. However, it only takes one picture of somebody for you to capture their mug.
FaceTrac puts into question the ethical parameters which should accompany the use of such technology. Is the public entitled to protect themselves from informal video camera surveillance or do they have a right to know who’s watching them and why?

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