These Cameras Don't Forget a Face

I've got a story in today's New York Times. Here's how it starts:Management at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco had been suspicious for weeks. James, a houseman on the graveyard shift was not the most productive worker, and trying to reach him on his walkie-talkie was usually a lost cause. So when James (not his real name) could not be found one summer night, his bosses went to their new video surveillance system.3vr_grab.JPGThe camera network - using software from 3VR Security Inc., a San Francisco company that makes surveillance technology - already knew what James looked like; facial recognition algorithms had built a profile of him over time. With a couple of mouse clicks, managers combed through hours of videotape taken that night by the hotel's 16 cameras, and found every place he had been - including the back entrance he slipped out of, three hours into his shift. He never came back to work; the next day, James became one of 10 employees dismissed from the hotel since 3VR's surveillance package was installed last June.Until recently, the only place where an employee could have been caught that easily was in a Hollywood script. Digital spy cameras can instantly pick people out of crowds on "24." Real-world video surveillance was stuck in the VCR age, taking countless hours to sift through blurry black-and-white tapes. Stopping a problem in progress was nearly impossible, unless a guard just happened to be staring at the right video monitor.But surveillance companies, using networks of cheap Web-connected cameras and powerful new video-analysis software, are starting to turn the Hollywood model into reality. Faces and license plates can now be spotted, in almost real time, at ports, military bases and companies. Security perimeters can be changed or strengthened with a mouse click. Feeds from hundreds of cameras can be combined into a single desktop view. And videotape that used to take hours, even days, to scour is searched in minutes.Some experts question the effectiveness of such "intelligent video" systems, which are sold by ObjectVideo, Verint and VistaScape as well, and worry about the privacy implications. But Brian Russell, chief of the Drake's engineering and maintenance departments, is happy with the results. "People know we're watching," he said. "Word travels fast. Fear travels as well."Click on over here to read the rest of the piece -- it's part of a big package in today's Circuits section on surveillance. Johnathan Glater writes about surfing anonymously. Katie Hafner talks about getting spooked by searches. And David Shenk takes a broad look at the erosion of privacy.Today's story is one of a bunch I've written on video surveillance, over the years. Check out London's cracking panopticon, Chicago's spycam police force, and the Pentagon's simple plan to track everything that moves.

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