Welcome to super-surveillance

Publication date: 28 August 2008
Originally published 2008 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
(in a much smaller version)
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Security cameras may be sprouting all over the place, but anybody who's briefly glanced at their actual output knows that the vast majority of them are low-resolution, low-frame-rate devices that're almost useless for identification purposes.

Your average wide-view outdoor security camera can see that at eight minutes past two in the morning, someone threw a brick through a shop window, grabbed something and then ran off. But as far as identifying the offender goes, the camera's likely to give nothing more than a vague idea of size and skin colour.

And most cameras are "dumb" - they may not even be feeding a half-hour tape loop. And it's practically a cliché that local councils are happy to win votes with "security" cameras, but don't necessarily feel any need to waste more ratepayers' money on someone to actually watch the screens.

The nonsensical things people do with security camera video in TV crime shows (I'd like a law made that allows the word "Enhance!" to only be spoken by Harrison Ford) may, however, not stay nonsensical for long. And soon, the cameras won't even need someone there to do it.

There's no technical reason why a device the size and shape of a normal security camera couldn't capture high-gain 30-frame-per-second video with ten-megapixel resolution. Or more.

The laws of physics do stand in the way of some of the more terrifying surveillance possibilities I've seen people talking about, though. A surveillance camera with a lens of normal size will, for instance, probably never be able to ID you by iris pattern if you don't stand with spitting distance of it.

But a video-speed stream of images as good as you can take today with a digital SLR camera with a $500 telephoto lens? That's going to happen, whether we like it or not.

At the moment, cameras and support systems that can do this sort of thing are so valuable that putting one up on a pole in a car park without its own dedicated armed guard would be idiotic. But that can, and will, change.

Superpowered surveillance systems also require lots of data transmission bandwidth and storage capacity at the other end, but both of those are getting cheaper at a rapid rate.

The really key technology for video "super-surveillance", though, isn't the cameras. It's software - "artificial intelligence", if you must - that can understand camera video without human intervention. Not just identifying "suspicious" acts - you'd better believe the cameras will all start paying more attention to you if you start staring back at them - but tracking people and vehicles no matter what they seem to be doing.

That kind of software is another growth industry. Just look at the highway cameras that read truck license plates to identify drivers who're speeding or not taking required breaks.

Civil libertarians have pointed out that it'd only take a flick of a switch to convert that system into one that automatically sent a ticket to anybody whose car took less than an hour to pass two cameras separated by the-speed-limit kilometres.

(A reader has now pointed out to me that exactly this sort of camera now exists, in the UK at least. And now the goverment's thinking about setting up an even more powerful system here in Australia. Hurrah.)

And that, of course, is just the tiny tip of the citizen-tracking iceberg.

(Around this point, someone usually pipes up to say "If you aren't doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?" The short answer is "plenty, you idiot". The elegant answer is Cardinal Richelieu's famous "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." For the long answer, check out Bruce Schneier's site. And if you'd prefer the answer presented as a storming disco anthem, allow me to direct you to the Pet Shop Boys' "Integral".)

There are already a few technologies on the horizon for one or another kind of high-speed reconfigurable lens, that can be zoomed and focussed - and in some cases even aimed - almost instantly. Such lenses could be made from some sort of electrosensitive fluid, or be the optical equivalent of a software radio - a device that sucks in more or less every photon it can find, then leaves heavy-duty digital signal processing hardware to construct images from the result. Multi-lensed plenoptic "light field" cameras already exist in the lab, and work in essentially this way. Several normal-sized lenses or a horde of tiny ones capture a fuzzy mess of light that can later be processed to extract images which are focussed at different depths, or in other ways. Ideally, at least, they can give you any image at all that could be created from the light that made it to the image sensors.

And then there's the already-quite-well-developed technology of super-resolution, in which you take low-res scenes with pixels that don't quite line up - which are what video cameras naturally give you - and overlay successive frames to get more resolution. This technique's common in amateur astronomy, where it can yield amazing results. It could be used on a few seconds of footage of you standing more or less still in the field of view of a surveillance camera, too, to give a image resolution much higher than that of the camera sensor.

These sorts of devices - or more primitive systems that just have two or three cameras with different specialties all built into one module - can do rather remarkable things when put under advanced software control.

The obvious applications are things like license-plate scanning, which is 100% doable today. Facial identification is improving, too - though it's still pretty much useless today, despite huge buddy-buddy contracts being handed out by various governments.

Computers allowed to work out their own ways of finding anything "unusual", though, could do so, so much more than that.

With infinite patience and vast amounts of storage, surveillance systems could correlate umpteen minor pieces of information about you into a whole picture which could destroy your life. To a considerable extent, this already happens; it's just that current surveillance systems tend to involve very large governmental budgets and a lot of human labour.

As anybody who's tried a bit of recreational e-stalking knows, it's already not too hard to find what people have bought from various online stores, who their friends are, what their interests are, and all of that other pseudo-private information that dumb systems ask you to enter as your "secret questions" for when you forget a password.

Ubiquitous super-camera systems, though, could easily track what books and newspapers you read in public, and even what page or article you're looking at. They could track what you wear, and when. Dress too warmly in summer and you might be a terrorist, or perhaps just a junkie. Better send the boys 'round, either way. Dress too lightly in winter and you might be a drunk. Or some other kind of junkie.

It's not even impossible that future camera systems could read your lips, like HAL. That sounds like ridiculous science fiction, but software to read facial expressions and, yes, even lips, already exists, for high-quality close-up video sources.

Lip-reading software is a great example of beating ploughshares into swords. A lot of the research into it is by people trying to make software to help deaf people - even deaf and blind people - understand speech, or to improve voice-controlled computer interfaces.

But before you know it, this technology plus good enough cameras could bring the same super-sensitivity to "terrorist words" that already exists in airports - even in the context of "that's my camera case, not a bomb" - to... well, to just about everywhere.

(The short-cut solution, of course, it to just strap directional microphones to the cameras. That's already been considered in London, surveillance-camera capital of the world. The idea seems to have been squashed for now, though.)

Many governments, and many corporations, absolutely adore the idea of knowing where everybody is, and what they're doing, all the time. And the two of them together can cause the system to sneak up on you, without any obvious government power grabs.

Corporations create surveillance systems in and around all of their databases and properties, other companies link those systems together, and then access to the whole thing can be sold to the government. Now it's hardly even government surveillance at all - they're just having a little look at surveillance that other people are doing anyway!

You can come up with plenty of situations in which even the most Orwellian surveillance system could work just fine.

If you, for instance, go to the zoo five times in a month, then even if you paid cash every time you could still mysteriously start receiving subscription offers for nature magazines, brochures about African safari tours, and so on.

And if the cinema knows that you never manage to leave the place before you've spent $40 on $0.87 worth of popcorn and drinks, they may start sending you discount ticket coupons.

And, conversely, if the cameras see you visiting the adult book store and then parking your car outside a girls' school for an hour, the system could alert the police to send a nice officer to tap on your window and ask you if you're all right.

Who could possibly object to that?!

But then again, you might not be too crazy about finding that your health insurance no longer covers heart disease, since your insurer has dipped into your credit-card and home-food-delivery data and noticed you've been eating a lot of burgers and pizza lately.

Have you just looked up six books about radical Islam? (Note that it doesn't necessarily matter what those books say about it.) If you have, I suggest you now investigate some cross-stitch and scrapbooking publications as well, whether you're actually interested or not.

And then there are the cases when the cops think you've committed a crime. But you haven't. But they don't know that, and they're under constant pressure to get people arrested and charged with stuff.

So they go to the cameras, and the Internet-history tracking, and every other darn "security" technology to which they've been given access without accountability by people who say they're protecting us all from "terror". And they dig up anything you've done that makes you look guilty.

Some darn thing you've done in the last five years will, in isolation, help to incriminate you. Heck, that may be how you got to be a "suspect" in the first place. Or perhaps the neighbour whose loud party you complained about last week told the police you were selling drugs. Say hello to the stormtroopers, and goodbye to your dog.

You can pick six facts out of the life of any adult who, you know, has something resembling a life, that make them look like a criminal, or an adulterer, or a "terrorist sympathiser".

Look, I'll show you.

I'm a pretty weird dude in some respects, but I assure you that I am not in fact a violent criminal.

But in my desk drawer, I have a straight razor. Why would anybody have a straight razor in their office, huh?

And I own both of Tim Kreider's two books, plus spare copies. And if that guy isn't a terrorist sympathiser, who is?!

Plus, I've got a hacksaw, bolt cutters, and a bone chisel. Individually, at least the first couple of items might look innocent.

But all together?

Clearly, I'm all set to dispose of a body. (And if accused, I'd probably talk to the police, and then go down for fifty years.)

Now, back in reality, I own those tools and many others because (a) I am a boy, and boys like tools, and (b) I buy a lot of stupid stuff on eBay.

I mean, no sooner did I see Theodore Gray's artificial hip that I knew I had to own one too.

It's a wonderfully satisfying object, more complex in design than Theodore's.

(Sometimes I pretend it's an alien ray gun.)

And that razor's in my desk drawer because it's a cheap piece of crap (yep, eBay again!) that I haven't yet managed to enchant into a shavable state. It shaves my arm just fine, but ain't so hot for my face.

And Tim Kreider's books aren't the half of the disturbing literature I've got in this joint. (The spare copies are, of course, for giving away; I've had to restock a couple of times now).

But just because you read something doesn't mean you believe it. No matter how many times idiots say that watching Triumph of the Will - only thirty bucks on Amazon.com! - will turn you into a Nazi, it still isn't true.

I wanted to write "...say that reading Mein Kampf - only thirteen bucks on Amazon! - will turn you into a Nazi...", but anybody who's tried to plough through that volume will know that such an allegation is utterly preposterous. Triumph of the Will is a cinematic masterpiece that happens to also be an advertisement for National Socialism; Mein Kampf is a slightly interesting insight into the mind of one of history's most important crackpots, padded out with a lot of complaining about Jews and gypsies and so on.

But, of course, People That Matter are happy to pretend that this is not the case, and that anybody who owns a Seditious Book and doesn't already believe everything in it will, surely, soon be Turned. Today, you can get "detained" because you possess information about Al-Qaeda that was downloaded from the FBI's own Web site. Heaven help you, I suppose, if you've got a copy of Steal This Book (only $10.85 at Amazon, if you insist on paying for it!).

Oh, lawdy - now I've made a Web page that links to stuff about Al-Qaeda suspects and Nazis and people complaining about police brutality. Surely this is another big black mark on my permanent record!

Clever software will unquestionably be able to greatly cut down the false-positive rate of surveillance-state data-mining, to reduce the number of innocent geeks who get hauled away because they happen to own a five-inch stick (which has been illegal in most of Australia for some time now), and a dusty Commodore floppy containing naughty text files.

But the Lock 'Em All Up kind of politician doesn't actually much care about reducing the false-positive rate. Busting lots of people loses you the votes of anybody who knows an innocent person who's been busted - or knows that when this sort of thing happens, lots of innocent people always are busted. But it gains you the votes of people who figure that if you've been locked up, there must have been a good reason.

One of the basic principles of the Western justice system is that even one innocent person going to jail - or, worse yet, to execution - is supposed to be too many. That applies even if you don't believe that privacy is a basic human right.

But, in reality, it's not too popular among Law And Order voters.

(False positives, by the way, are the biggest problem with current public-surveillance facial-recognition systems. They can recognise John Q. Terrorist just fine, but they'll probably identify fifty thousand innocent people as being him before he actually walks by - if, of course, he ever does.)

There's no good way to evade ubiquitous surveillance, if it comes to pass. You can pay cash for everything and ride a bicycle instead of driving a car, but if the cameras know what you look like and consider a carless cash-only life to be "suspicious", that'll only attract more attention. It's like doing your shopping while wearing a hoodie and a false beard.

Some privacy advocates have speculated about techniques to poison surveillance databases, by for instance posting harmless allegations about yourself, which aren't actually true, all over the place. ("Dan from Dan's Data has the world's largest collection of argyle socks." "Dan from Dan's Data was nine feet tall until his fifteenth birthday, then shrank to his present height.")

It seems to me that doing that would take a lot of time to make any sort of impact, would look suspicious all by itself, and might end up making you look guilty of something anyway ("Every victim was found with an argyle sock stuffed in her mouth. Hmmm...").

More practically, you could just get into the habit of filling in online "to get your free account, give us some information about yourself" sorts of forms with nonsense and/or fake data, and making sure you don't use the same nickname whenever you log into a Web site. These aren't exactly James-Bond-level tricks, but they're also easy to do and not terribly suspicious-looking.

To really fight the growing Surveillance State, you need to take long-term action. Fortunately, this is also pretty easy. Just get past your fear. Don't allow people to scare you into giving them more power over you in return for "protection" from threats which do not exist.

Nonexistent Fifth Columnists. Nonexistent Soviet missiles. Nonexistent Iraqi missiles.

And, yes, nonexistent domestic terrorist threats, too.

A real terrorist underground gets stuff done. If you've got local terrorists fighting your government, you damn well know about it, because stuff is blowing up, people are being kidnapped, food's being poisoned and/or informants are showing up dead on street corners.

In the Western world today, it doesn't look as if the "domestic terrorists" can even get it together enough to light forest fires, which is a terrorist act only slightly more risky to the perpetrator than egging someone's car.

The only argument against this obvious observation appears to be that the same people who came up with the No Fly List and a staggering number of ways to hand the identities of their agents over to their enemies are, right now, desperately keeping the lid on a seething Islamic terrorist underground in the Western world. And doing it so stunningly quietly, for the first time in their history, that all we notice is the comedic "cover" operations in which they prevent shampoo bottles from making it onto an airliner.

So let go of the fear they want you to feel. One day, something's going to kill you, but you do not need a surveillance camera on every corner to prevent your cause of death from being terrorism.

More broadly, don't fall for any politician banging the law-and-order drum and peddling the old saw that you have to sacrifice rights and privacy in return for safety and comfort.

Well, yeah, that certainly can be the case. I gladly give up the right to keep and bear land mines, in return for living in a country where anybody else who's caught with them will have a lot of explaining to do.

But citizens of the USSR certainly didn't have a whole lot of rights and privacy, and they didn't seem too damn safe or comfortable to me.

It's perfectly possible to throw away your civil rights and get not one good thing in return at all.

And, in fact, that's usually the way this "trade-off" turns out to work.

If our governments make us just a little bit "safer", there'll be no way to tell paranoid schizophrenics from everyone else.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)