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    Economist: I spy, with my big eye

    The Economist reports on the proliferation of video surveillance and facial recognition technology in numerous countries:

    Video surveillance constitutes over half [of China’s] huge security industry, and is expected to reach 500 billion yuan ($79 billion) in 2015. China will soon overtake Britain, with around 3m cameras, as the capital of video surveillance.

    Yet China is far from alone. In many democracies surveillance cameras are multiplying, too. And face-recognition technology is proving a wonder tool for both governments and marketers.

    A jail in Alabama uses it to check those leaving against prisoner records. Mexican prisons use it to identify visitors. Heathrow airport is installing systems to track passengers through lounges and onto the plane. Brazil has plans to equip police with camera-spectacles that can identify troublemakers at the 2014 World Cup. […]

    The smiles of employees at Keihin Electric Express Railway in Japan are assessed by computer. Facebook, a social network, recognises uploaded photos. The latest smartphones can spot their users.

    The technology is improving fast. In 2010, in an assessment by America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the best program matched 92% of mugshots to one out of 1.6m pictures. Such results require high-quality still photos, stresses NIST’s Jonathon Phillips. But progress continues on fuzzier moving images.  […]

    System performance depends on the context. Controlled environments, such as jails, are ideal. An experiment in Mainz railway station in Germany got steady shots by mounting cameras over escalators (although the recognition rate only reached 60%). Putting the lens behind an advert is a good way to get subjects who are facing it. Facebook is good at recognising people because they pick names from a limited list of friends.

    More cameras and better face recognition raise tricky legal and political questions. America places little restriction on the use of face recognition, as legal precedent denies the “reasonable expectation of privacy” in public. But Harley Geiger of the Centre for Democracy & Technology, an advocacy group, says the technology goes beyond normal public scrutiny and could create a world where everyone, in effect, becomes “a public figure”.

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