Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The end of privacy?

Sometimes there’s no doubt as to the moral ‘value’ of our work as engineers. Medical devices are good, right? Rockets and bombs? Well that’s more complex but those who chose to work in those fields argue that such hardware exists to keep us safe, defend our freedoms and so on. But what about the use of computer vision in surveillance applications?

When George Orwell penned “1984” the idea that you could be monitored 24-7 was science fiction. Today though, it’s fast becoming reality. If you disbelieve me, visit the UK and see how many cameras they have monitoring traffic and pedestrians.

Historically, these cameras have been dumb: they rely on people watching screens, and as such their ability to capture information is essentially nil. But through computer vision these devices are starting to acquire the ability to recognize what’s going on in their field of view. This means that, in theory, your movements could be tracked as you traveled about the country, and possibly used in court as evidence that you were in a certain place at a particular time.

I find this troubling, and it seems I am not alone. In “
Machines that can see,” (The Economist, March 5th, 2009) Nick Dewar discusses how entrepreneurs and businesses are seeing opportunities in the ability to watch people and track their activities.

As engineers it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing something because it’s “cool,” but I suggest those of us seeking to deploy computer vision technology should think carefully about this. Do we want to be responsible for the end of personal privacy?

Think about it.

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