by Anthony W. Accurso
A company called Ventra in February 2022 presented its new facial recognition software that rapidly searches voluminous video footage for a face and then identifies the faces of other people who came in contact with the target.
The relevant portion of the presentation to surveillance research group IPVM relied on footage captured by ten fixed cameras in a transit center in San Luis Obispo, California. The Ventra presenter fed a photograph of a male subject into the system, which combed through a month’s worth of video in mere moments, identifying 23 snapshots of video where the subject was present.
This function alone would be a frightening overreach into the privacy of surveilled persons and should give every person pause to consider the implications for that level of tracking as applied to the hundreds of thousands of public cameras that are abundant in big cities.
And yet it gets worse. The presenter then clicked a button labeled “find associates” and specified a ten-minute window. The software then identified 154 additional faces that appeared in the footage within ten minutes of each snapshot of the subject. Even random persons who merely walked by the subject once were now associated with him.
The system then ranked the association by frequency, noting that “150 [people] appeared on camera with him only once, and another three appeared with him twice.” However, one man “had 14 co-appearances with the subject.”
Identifying and ranking such associations is known as “social network analysis” and has been done using cell phone data by the NSA and U.S. military to track terrorists. Soon, it will be deployed against regular U.S. citizens and used by law enforcement and corporations alike.
The Ventra presenter said, “[y]ou can really start building out a network. You may have one guy, that showed up a few times, that you’re interested in — you can start looking at windows of time around him to see who else is there at the same time, and build out the networks of those people.”
Such tools are not going to be used solely on criminals, either, as the presenter explained. “You may be using the cameras for security, but 94, 96 percent of the time there’s no event that security’s interested in,” said the presenter, “but there’s always information that the system is generating on those that you can plug into your [Business Intelligence].”
“Business Intelligence” is corporate shorthand for data points companies can mine to help them generate more business, mostly by selling you more things.
Such tools are the next step in unchecked facial recognition software development. But just because we can take this next step does not mean we should do so without discussion or safeguards.
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