How would you feel if the government could easily track your movements by automatically identifying your face on images captured by the ever-growing network of CCTV cameras? The FBI will be able to do just that soon, with its one-billion-dollar Next Generation Identification program.
The FBI has been pursuing their new people identification project for years now, working with both Lockheed Martin Transportation and Security Solutions and IBM.
The Bureau argues that the project's goal "is to reduce terrorist and criminal activities by improving and expanding biometric identification and criminal history information services through research, evaluation, and implementation of advanced technology." That's all good in my book, although I have my doubts about its actual efficacy for new criminals.
But, while modernising the networking between local, state and federal agencies to speed up the identification of criminals through new fingerprint analysis and databases is great, there are other biometric parameters that may be easily abused. Chief among them: facial identification.
With this system, the FBI and its collaborating administrations would be able to apply facial identification to any image source. Using a much more sophisticated version of the technology found in Facebook or iPhoto, law enforcement agents would be able to quickly go through catalogs of mugshots, images of tattoos or even street photos in search of specific individuals. And of course, that includes an expansive network of CCTV cameras that dot landscapes and street corners across the country.
While America will not become a science fiction Big Brother movie for the time being, you can be sure that this is where we are going. Older video cameras didn't have neither the resolution nor the connectivity to work with a centralised, sophisticated facial recognition system. But this has changed fast: ultra-cheap, inexpensive HD cameras are now being installed everywhere and, very soon, the ability of anyone with access to such system to track everyone on the streets will be an omnipresent reality.
Just think about this: in the New York subway system alone, there are now 3700 security cameras online. Three thousand and seven hundred cameras is a network that you can't escape unless you wear a balaclava. Of those, a remarkable 507 are "providing live feeds to NYPD's Command Center from three key transit hubs: Grand Central Station, Penn Station, and Times Square." And that number is growing.
The US has been pushing for these networks for some time now. In 2009, the federal government gave state and local administrations $300 million "to fund an ever-growing array of cameras." While it's not as bad as right here in the United Kingdom—where there is an estimated one CCTV camera per 14 citizens—you can't go around any big city without being watched almost in every street and every public transportation line.
Combine this with laser scanners that can detect and any material trace—even the contents of your breakfast—in any public place, airport or traffic light, and you will have a perfect storm.