A new camera surveillance system in preparation for the market by Hitachi Kokusai Electric (Japan) claims the ability to recognize a face from a database of 36 million in less than a second. It does this by not creating a stored image and then analyzing it, but by immediately analyzing the incoming visual stream (containing a selected face) and using the visual markers to search the database. While there are limitations – the subject must be looking at the camera within a 30 degree angle and be close enough for a 40 x 40 pixel image – this is an impressive achievement. Time will tell about the accuracy rate.
In the moderately successful Steven Spielberg film Minority Report the hero of the story is seen walking down a street where the advertising signs recognize his face and change their ad message accordingly. That scene won’t be science fiction much longer. Hitachi has already recognized that its prime market for the new system will be ‘suitable for customers that have a relatively large-scale surveillance system, such as railways, power companies, law enforcement and large stores.’ Face recognition has been an important research area for many decades; it was only a matter of time as the capability and accuracy rates increased to a point where systems like Hitachi’s could be used commercially.
As with all security surveillance systems, the applications can have an impact in many directions. One is obviously security, keeping the bad guys out. Of course, much depends on who is classified as a bad guy. Another direction is keeping the good guys in line, as in watching protest crowds or other group activities and using this technology to identify the participants. In countries where the courts and legislators are reasonably fair, this sort of massive increase in the effectiveness of surveillance will probably result in legal challenges based on false recognition, invasion of privacy and illegitimate application. Elsewhere, and anywhere unless detected, this adds to the sensor arsenal of those with the money and authority to survey anything.