Montréal, le 9 janvier 1999
Numéro 28
(page 6)
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 by Ralph Maddocks
          A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Britain. From the moment I walked down the aircraft ramp into Heathrow's Terminal 4, I had an uncanny feeling that I was being watched by unseen eyes. My instincts were right, I was.  
          Throughout the terminal there are hidden cameras; in duty-free shops (which though duty-free are certainly not profit free), alongside the people movers, in the stairwells, in the bars and eating places, in elevators, in the airport buses and even in the toilets; in fact everywhere you could think of, and probably some places that would never occur to you. Missing, was much evidence of physical security in the form of policemen. Of course there were some « bobbies » around, but compared to other European airports relatively few security guards.  
          I assumed that this plethora of cameras was due to the various European security problems, the IRA, Iraq, Iran etc. What I wasn't prepared for were the thousands of cameras on the roads, in individual stores, in the shopping malls, in parking lots, at railway stations, at gasoline stations etc. In fact they are everywhere, the whole of Britain seems to have turned into one huge monitoring station; even George Orwell would be surprised if he were to return.  
I am a camera 
          In fact, I learned that there are some 150 000 cameras in Britain, which amounts to one for every 1.5 square kilometers or one for every 390 inhabitants. If one assumes that they don't place cameras in the uninhabited areas of the Welsh mountains or the Scottish Highlands then these ratios are even greater. The presence of cameras on the roads to monitor speeders, at stop signs and merges are in the main announced and some even display your present speed as you drive by. The sad thing seems to be that the population has simply become so immune to this and other invasions of its privacy that the average man in the street has got used to them and no longer notices them; it is only the stranger who comments about them. 
          While I was there an announcement was made by a company called Cambridge Neurodynamics to the effect that an « unnamed » airport would be installing a new camera system. The company says that its facial-recognition project, the alternative to which is to rely on trained officers to remember the faces of people on the wanted list, will enable security officers at Britain's ports and airports to concentrate on people the computer indicates bear a good likeness to known criminals and terrorists. 
          The CN system works by taking pictures of a person as he approaches a video camera. The resulting handful of frames give several two-dimensional pictures. To add depth to the face, two low-power lasers scan its contours from either side. A computer then combines the contour information with the images it has of the front of the face and builds a virtual model of each traveller's face, which is then checked against the database of wanted people. The system can be fooled only if a suspect has surgery to change the shape of his face. Criminals or terrorists who realise they are about to be scanned and who look away or pull a funny face will not deceive the computer. The device seeks similarities around the eyes, features which humans use to pick out one another and that do not change with expression and age as much as the rest of the face. 
It's looking at you kid 
          Just prior to my visit, an intelligent computer system, using closed circuit television which matches faces in the crowd to mug shots of known criminals, went into operation in a poor district of London. The local council of Newham in London's East End aided by Scotland Yard have installed a $150 000 computer system, called Mandrake, which is linked to 140 stationary cameras and 11 mobile cameras. They will scan the district's shopping centres, car parks and railway stations. The system which can scan up to 150 faces at a time compares them to a data base of known criminals stored in the council's headquarters computer. When a known villain's face is matched by the computer the monitoring team is alerted and they in turn call the police. 
          A local paper quoted a police spokesman as saying « The only people entered into the system will be convicted criminals who, through our intelligence, we believe are habitually committing crimes in the area. » He then added the usual remark made by those defending yet another incursion into people's privacy, « If people are not committing crimes they have nothing to fear, but if they are among the small minority who are, the message is, “We are watching out for you.” » The paper reported that police initially will use the system to concentrate on catching robbery suspects. In the future, however, it could be used to search crowds for hooligans who make trouble at soccer matches. The system's developer, Software and Systems International, said that the system is accurate enough to discern people hiding behind make-up or eye glasses and growing a beard won't help either. A reduction in the crime rate in Newham over the next six months will likely persuade the Labour Party-dominated council to continue with the system. 
          Civil liberties groups said they were quite alarmed by the new system, « The accuracy of facial mapping like this is limited. You only need a handful of photographs of celebrities to see how different the same people can look in different pictures, » said a spokeswoman for Liberty, a civil rights group, adding « Even if you did have a system which worked, it would have to be regulated very carefully to protect people's privacy. » The spokesperson also added that, « The claim that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear is rubbish. What the police call an 80% success rate is what we would call a one in five chance of a mistake. » 
          Mandrake is the first identification system to be able to work from moving pictures. Less technologically advanced systems are already in operation at our southern neighbour's Mexican border, a system which compares pictures of criminals with individuals crossing it. At least one state in the US is said to be using a database of millions of pictures to check on people who may be entering into more than one marriage, and another state is using a passive system to check for duplicate drivers' licence applications in the same way. 
          Mandrake, by the way, is the name of a thick, fleshy, rooted plant yielding a narcotic poison. Its root was believed in ancient times to be like the human form and to shriek when pulled up! Big Brother is thus alive and well in « Cool » Britannia and it would be naive in the extreme to believe that he isn't lurking around here as well. 
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