IBM announced this week that it has developed and is deploying a video surveillance system capable of analyzing human and machine behavior, including tracking individuals and vehicles (i.e, specific license plates and cars) and singling out suspicious behavior.
According to CNET.com
IBM's system connects surveillance video with smart software that can detect and index what you tell it to in real time. The system performs attribute-based searches on stored video clips for specific objects or actions, or can be set to sound alarms when those things come across the screen.
S3 is similar to surveillance software developed by San Francisco-based 3VR, but it adds the ability to integrate with other recognition software, such as plug-ins that identify license plates.
In one instance, S3 was used to identify customers who walked into a store entrance without a package but then approached the returns desk with a package.
S3 can also backtrack the path of an object entering a particular area. In a video feed of an airport tarmac, for example, S3 can electronically draw a line around a particular area of the screen, then backtrack the path of anyone entering that secure area of interest. A rule can be set so that alarms go off if the person walking into that secure area did not enter from a predetermined point of entry, Palmer said.
It doesn't take a class analysis to see that this technology will be used by the people in power to control those of us without it. Those who regularly read this blog will not be surprised, however, to see that employers plan to use it in the workplace to single out workers who redistribute company funds or property. And that's not to mention all sorts of more benign actions (yet still potentially threatening to capitalist power) that the computer might be able to quantify in the future, such as speaking to a shop steward, lingering too long, faking "busy" or chatting on a company phone, for instance.
This technology represents another frontal assault on workers autonomy. While it's easy to see the way that this tech spies on workers, putting the eye of the boss everywhere at all times, it is important also to recognize the deskilling effects it has as well. The system actually has its roots in a machine aimed at identifying vegetables in the grocery store checkout.
Although IBM (Quote)is making news today with its Smart Surveillance System (S3) video, which it says can tell a terrorist from a traveling salesman or a scammer from a shopper, researchers began the project with a more modest goal. They wanted to tell a cumquat from a rutabaga.
"Veggie Vision," as it was called a few years back, employed quickly-evolving video interpreting techniques and software to help grocery store cashiers manage the most exotic vegetables and enter the correct price.
Fast-forward three years. Charles Palmer, chief technology officer of security and privacy at IBM Research, is still focused on the check-out line -- only this time he's concentrating on retail theft.
Although the retail industry loses an estimated $50 million to fraud and theft each year, finding the thief often means sifting through hours of video surveillance tapes.
"Humans have a 20-minute limit, then they turn into vegetables," Palmer joked. Another problem: customers have amassed all this video surveillance and they don't know what to do with it, he said.
So, the technology started out as an attempt to deskill grocery store cashiers - interestingly one of the few jobs left where someone in the service industry can eventually make a decent wage - and has evolved into a broader attack on workers power.
It may seem trivial, but the more functions that the boss can transfer out of workers' hands and to machines or to a technician in the office, the more power she has over the production floor. That reduces the ability of workers to take independent action in defense of their own power, with obvious negative results (see this earlier piece for more
). It is one of the main reasons that grocery stores have invested so heavily in the expensive self-checkout systems (remember the Safeway strike a few years ago?). Indeed, chief technology officer of security and privacy at IBM Research, Charles Palmer, admits that most demand is coming from the retail sector.
Further, IBM hopes to use the system to guard the border (where perhaps it will be joined someday by machinegun-toting robots like this one waiting to be deployed to the border
between North and South Korean). Boosters of the new IBM system boast about its superiority to other contemporary border technologies, like the creepily participatory texasborderwatch.com
, which relies on citizen participation to watch cameras.
The advantages of the S3 over Texas Governor Rick Perry's "Virtual Border Watch System" (i.e., texasborderwatch.com), for example, are obvious. An article in the Del-Rio News Herald
this week summed it up. Discussing the participatory aspects of the website, the author writes,
The site instructions continue, "Although this is an initial test site, in the event you witness criminal activity and send a notification, law enforcement specific to that camera will be alerted. Thank you for your help in securing the Texas border."
The Web cameras are part of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's plan for a "virtual border watch" program.
[VVSO Chief Deputy Terry] Simons said the camera concept parallels the military idea of "force multipliers."
"If we can watch these locations by technical means, that let's our officers do other things," Simons said.
Which means more Border Patrol in the cities and on the highways. Consciously or not, this border deployment is a clever bid to get white working class approval for a technology that will eventually impact them as well by first using the wedge of the cross-class alliances of white supremacy and nationalism to open the door to its broad application against immigrants of color.
Palmer admitted other possible future applications, including recognizing skin color
The S3 could also potentially be programmed to identify things as specific as skin color in humans.
"I can imagine they could do it for people. I suppose it's possible, but it's never been something we'd been asked to do. The only color-based things have been cars and airplanes," Palmer said.
But, don't worry, he assures us.
While IBM does not name specific security customers, the surveillance system has been in use by several governments, law enforcement agencies, airports and some businesses, according to Charles Palmer, director of IBM's Privacy Research Institute.
"This is not the HAL 9000. This is not able to do full face recognition or car type, unless they are different-color cars," Palmer said. "There are also much less evil reasons for using this. One retailer, for example, wanted to know where empty parking spots were."
Of course, careful readers will remember that one of the main selling points of the S3 is its flexibility and openness to plug-ins. Quoted in another article, Palmer rephrased it this way
The IBM executive also said the future might hold the ability to automatically monitor "entities," such as terrorists. He quickly added individual persons would not be targets.
"HAL 9000 is not here yet -- give us time," he said about the computer from 2001:A Space Odyssey.
So, don't worry. Have the scientists at IBM ever let you down before