Thursday, July 15, 2010

The ethics of computer vision

I find “surveillance” a rather creepy word. I really don’t care for the idea that I’m being watched and my movements tracked. It’s not that I have anything to hide; I just don’t see how my movements are anyone else’s business.

Right now it’s not a major problem since security cameras (and traffic cameras too,) are pretty dumb. For the most part they rely on a human to view the images and detect unusual activity and they have no ability to recognize me and log where I am, and when (though license plate identification is well-proven technology.)

But if you keep up with developments in computer vision you’ll know that’s changing. Biometric identification techniques are advancing and pretty soon surveillance cameras will be able to log that Brian Gray entered the Happy Dog sports bar at 11:30 am on Monday June 12th. Now that in itself might not be a problem, unless that piece of data can somehow be linked to my credit card to reveal what beverage I purchased. And then, armed with that information, plus the knowledge that my employer forbids lunchtime drinking, a person of dubious morals might be tempted to blackmail me.

See where I’m going with this? Computer vision plus biometrics plus surveillance cameras equals loss of privacy. And once the capabilities exist how long before governments, under the guise of “protecting us from harm” start to gather the information? Patriot Act II anyone?

Part of the problem is of course the lack of technological understanding in the general population: they won’t know what’s happening until its too late.

So I think we, as knowledgeable professionals, have a duty to educate and inform. We should talk to friends, family and colleagues about where this technology is taking us and try to start a debate about how closely we want to be watched. As engineers, we have an ethical duty to protect the health and safety of the public, as well as to inform them about the risks and benefits of technology.

I’ve seen 1984 and I’ve read the book and I don’t want to go down that road, so let’s be responsible members of society and initiate the surveillance debate.

1 comment:

Dave's Word said...

This is like a silent Hiroshima. I do agree with you, however education is not one of the priorities anymore. Everyone will disagree at home, but outside the walls of their homes everyone will be obedient.