'People spotter' software could soon be watching

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my new credit card that arrived with my signature already digitised and printed on the card. That did concern me more than having my face digitised and stored on file, but now I'm not so sure.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my new credit card that arrived with my signature already digitised and printed on the card. That did concern me more than having my face digitised and stored on file, but now I’m not so sure. Elsewhere in this week’s Computerworld is a story about Lois McInnes, a concerned citizen from Wellington, who is taking on the new driver’s licensing scheme in the courts. While the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA) have written her off as something of a conspiracy theory nut, and I must admit I was a bit sceptical about some of her claims, but now I’m thinking again. One thing McInnes is concerned about is the possibility for government agencies, be they police or whatever, to track innocent citizens as they move about the country by comparing footage taken from surveillance cameras with the photos stored on the LTSA database. Sure, I thought, in a perfect world with software that could cope and clean video footage, that would be possible. But not today — the cameras write over the same piece of tape constantly and they rapidly lose their quality and the software just isn’t up to the job of comparing and contrasting effectively enough. But that isn’t the case. It seems those wily Germans have been working on this problem for some time and on Triangle TV the other day (so-called "public access television") they had a short documentary about two software packages that could easily and accurately compare faces and a whole lot more. The first product is from ZN, a German company that specialises in electronic vision systems. The package, called the "people spotter" in the documentary but called ZN-Face on the Web site, looks at a piece of footage, works out which bit is the face and compares it to faces stored in a database. The software compares over 100 points of reference on the face and can tell if you’ve changed your hairstyle, grown a beard or are wearing glasses or whatever. ZN hopes the package will soon be capable of scanning a fast-moving crowd, picking out faces from its database on the fly. A spokesman says ZN hopes to trial the software at an airport, where it will be used to lock on to faces kept on file — in the test probably airport staff, but in real life it could be used to look for known criminals, terrorists and that sort of thing. The second piece of software is called "e-motion" and was developed for the medical profession. Used to assess a patient’s body language, the software is capable of telling if a person is depressed, has early signs of Alzheimer’s and can even, according to the documentary, tell if a woman is menstruating by the body language she uses. Being a mainstream report it focused mostly on the software’s ability to tell if a person is receptive to another’s sexual advances, only briefly saying the software could tell if a person was acting aggressively or was being receptive to what another person was saying, but the potential there is staggering. I think government needs to think through the idea of digitised photographs very carefully indeed — given government departments’ penchant for selling customer information. We need a set of laws, not guidelines, that will govern access to and dissemination of this kind of data. I can’t find a Web site with any more information on e-motion but for more on ZN take a look at this site: www. zn-gmbh.com. Just to really cheer you up I found a story about Chernobyl. Apparently the officials in charge of the plant aren’t too worried by Y2K — they’ve just started up the last remaining reactor after five months of repair work. The Ukrainian government still claims it needs over $US1 billion to build two replacement reactors and in the mean time, with winter approaching, it needs the power produced by Chernobyl. I guess on the positive side they at least have plenty of experience with disaster recovery. One thing is missing from this week’s column — mention of the election. I figured you could all do with a break from it all by now — think of it as an early Christmas present from me. Ho ho ho. Paul Brislen is Computerworld’s Y2K reporter, phone: 0-9-377 9902. For publication copy letters to cw_letters@idg.co.nz paul_brislen@idg.co.nz

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