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Surveillance Technology and the Modern Protest

The ability to identify people from even short clips of video is rapidly improving

Andrew Winning / Reuters

London's closed-circuit video cameras had a lot to see this summer. As riots broke out in various parts of the city, some of the estimated 500,000 cameras sprinkled across London captured footage of thousands of rioters, providing law enforcement with visual data that they'd hoped would aid in the prosecution of what would otherwise be an anonymous crowd. Hoods and face coverings thwarted that plan, but the technology to identify people from even short clips of video is improving rapidly.

A recent post from IEEE Spectrum looks at new tools being developed to utilize video footage from CCTV cameras to identify people through facial recognition technology, and also to track the movements of individuals and identify potentially erratic or dangerous actions. (In an almost perfectly wry coincidence, the main researcher behind this work at London's Kingston University is named James Orwell.)

The proliferation of these surveillance techniques and the technology behind them raises concerns about privacy and the ability of governments (or private companies or schools) to monitor and record everyday life. It also pushes the concept of public space into uncomfortable territory.

Rioting in London might not be a great example of the kind of free expression our public spaces should inspire, but the use of video footage to try to identify perpetrators does highlight the loss of anonymity we once could find in a crowd. Soon people will no longer be able to join a gathering to support its message without facing the possibility that they as individuals may be identified.

And with a growing amount of tagged visual and text data available freely on the web, linking CCTV footage to personal information will become even easier. The public realm of the city is suddenly a more tightly controllable space. When we're in those spaces and captured by those cameras, our digital lives might one day be instantly accessed and layered over that video feed. This digital information from our social networks and openly accessible websites will make a sort of cyber-leap into our real world, offering whomever might be watching information about where we've been, what we've recently bought, or what sorts of political movements we may have been involved with.

This coming reality seems especially relevant as protesters continue their stand in Yemen and as "Occupy" events persist in cities all over the world. These are classic examples of utilizing the public spaces of cities to voice concerns and join with like-minded constituents. If the new public spaces are areas where our digital information becomes as observable as our physical selves, we all may become more cautious about gathering or protesting or occupying. Add a repressive regime to that mix, and the power of public spaces for use by the public at large could be in danger.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.