Have you ever had the feeling that, while watching a video on your computer, your computer is watching you. Well, a number of recent articles in the press suggest that you may not be paranoid after all. Not long ago, CCTV was used either to keep a record, for possible future use, or for real-time surveillance of a target area by a bored human observer. But technology has given the simple camera new and worrying powers.
With facial recognition technology, real-time images of people from a camera can be sent to a database and matched with any entries stored there. This technology is being used in many public places; shopping malls, museums even railway stations, to collect information as to your travel habits, your purchases.
Even your meetings with friends and acquaintances are noted. Just bumped into an old school friend you haven’t seen for many years? Didn’t know that he is now on a government watch list as a potential Corbyn supporter? Congratulations, now you’re on the watch list.
In Liverpool last year, the World Museum held an exhibition featuring the “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors.” People visiting the exhibit had their faces scanned because of a “heightened security risk.” It was not clear if the Emperor was at risk from Liverpudlians or the Liverpudlians from the Terracotta Warriors. We hope that the warriors, estimated at some 8,000 and all with different faces, were in the database.
Sadly, if nowhere on earth is safe from facial recognition, neither are the skies. Cathay Pacific has recently admitted that it uses CCTV to record passengers both on its aircraft and in airport lounges. In addition, it collects data from the inflight entertainment (IFE) system, so be careful if you try to catch a porno film while on a business trip free of wife and kids. You might find all sorts of embarrassing offers landing on your smartphone, if not your doorstep.
Three other airlines American, United and Singapore have been forced to admit that their IFE screens have lenses embedded within them. They say that the cameras were built into the screens by IFE manufacturers and are for “possible future uses such as seat-to-seat video conferencing.”
And, all your duty-free purchases are carefully noted. So make sure that any perfume you buy for your “friend” is the same as your wife’s favourite brand; they know what she likes and they know where you live.
An Italian firm sells store mannequins, known as “EyeSee,” that use facial recognition to secretly monitor the age, race and gender of customers. Stores can use data collected by the mannequins to create more effective marketing strategies. The next generation of dummies will be able to listen to customers’ discussions and gain even more information about their interest in products.
In another sign of the times, supermarkets having problems with shoplifting, usually by a small number of regular offenders, are installing Facewatch. This facial-recognition system watches everyone coming into the store. If it recognises a “subject of interest” on its database, it quietly sends an alert to the store manager.
The use of hidden cameras in the most unexpected places is not new. Back in 2014, hidden cameras were installed in the boardroom of Leeds United football club after rumours that people were using the room to take drugs.
John Buchan, best known for his thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” wrote a rather creepy horror story, The Watcher by the Threshold. The threshold in the story is the threshold of vision, something very unpleasant is there, but always just out of sight. You know that it is there, but however hard you look, you can’t see it. John Buchan, born in a simpler age but possessed of an amazing imagination, would feel at home with the innumerable watchers we have at our collective threshold.