The scenes of rioting and looting on the streets of London made global headline news and many of the shocking scenes were captured on CCTV. Not only did these make a very graphic contribution to news coverage but they have also proved invaluable to police who have since arrested nearly 2000 of the perpetrators.
It now looks like police forces in London and many other cities will soon get even more assistance from CCTV following an announcement that researchers at Kingston University in the UK have created a system that uses artificial intelligence to recognise specific types of behaviour, such as someone holding a gun. The technology is capable of following a person across multiple cameras and the developers say their invention would allow police to focus on law-breakers while erasing images of innocent people.
This breakthrough was announced by Dr James Orwell of Kingston University.
"In riot situations, it could be people running - a crowd might converge in a certain place. If somebody pulls out a gun, people tend to run in all sorts of directions. These movements can be detected. When an event is triggered, the software collates video footage from before and after the incident to record a full history of the suspect's movements, explained Orwell.
Orwell also maintains that such a system could record a shop window being smashed and the technology would trace back to see who smashed the window and then retrace the person's steps to see when and where he entered the town centre.
How does it work? All this information is created by Video Content Analysis (VCA) software but before looking at that it struck me as an amusing coincidence that the name Orwell seems to have a synergetic link to the science of citizen surveillance.
1984 Comes To 2011
I refer to that other Orwell, the author George Orwell who wrote the futuristic novel 1984. Although written back in 1948 the story predicts astonishing similar surveillance references to those that citizens are subjected to these days.
A key element of the 1984 story concerns a character called Big Brother who is the despot in charge of a society where people live in apartments equipped with two-way telescreens, so that they may be watched or listened to at any time. Similar telescreens are found in work and public places, along with hidden microphones.
In the novel this surveillance allows for effective control of the citizens. Under the Big brother dictate the smallest sign of rebellion, even something so small as a facial expression, can result in immediate arrest and imprisonment. Thus, citizens are compelled to absolute obedience at all times.
Of course I am not saying that VCA has reached this point, although it can be used to interpret facial expression. It can also provide an astonishing amount of analysis about persons being filmed.
Video Content Analysis (VCA) software can automatically analyse video to interpret events not based on a single image. It is already known that this software can recognise unusual scene changes like those described previously by Dr James Orwell.
One VCA capability that will prove particularly useful to police is the system's ability to track people on a map by calculating their position from the images. It is then possible to link many cameras and track a person through an entire building or neighbourhood. This can allow a person to be followed without having to analyze many hours of film.
To successfully achieve this sort of analysis requires a lot of CCTV cameras. Currently, the UK is one of the most filmed societies in the world with nearly two million cameras operating throughout the nation, something that concerns privacy campaigners.
Fortunately, we have not reached the level of citizen surveillance described in George Orwell's prophetic 1984 novel where even Thought Police were employed to hunt down citizens with potentially anarchic binary circuits.
However, today's privacy campaigners wont like the fact that VCA software algorithms are reaching levels of sophistication where video captured expressions on peoples face could be analysed, a technique that could conceivably lead to a Big Brother style thought reading capability. Keep smiling!