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Big Brother is… oh wait, never mind

The Daily Mail got the nation’s teacups rattling yesterday by reporting on a new CCTV camera that can supposedly scan 36 million faces per second. Although the rest of their article gets the facts a little bit straighter, their headline is totally misleading. How on earth would any camera be able to take a picture of 36 million people in one second, let alone recognise every single one of them? That’s more than the population of Canada.

Here’s the original video from which the Mail published (uncredited) screenshots:

First of all, they got the name of the company behind this technology wrong. It’s Hitachi Kokusai Electric (日立国際電気), not Hitachi Hokusai Electric. For the record, Kokusai (国際) means “international”. Hokusai (北斎) is the name of a Japanese artist who died in 1849. His most famous work was probably The Great Wave.

What Hitachi have actually developed is a system that looks for and analyses human faces in the video pictures it receives, and then stores the resulting biometric records along with the CCTV footage. Operators can then search for a particular individual by, for example, scanning in a photograph and then asking the system to look for matches in the stored data. This is where the figure of 36 million comes from. It’s the rate at which the system is able to check through the stored data for matches. In other words, this figure relates to the system’s data retrieval rate. It has nothing to do with the rate at which faces are recognised by the camera.

Strictly speaking, the camera doesn’t actually recognise faces at all. It you pause the video at the 7-second mark, you can see a screenshot that shows the camera selection (カメラ選択) set to “NDR (SR-N5010), Cam1 (HC-IP3000_1)”. According to Hitachi’s website, NDR (SR-N5010) is a 32-channel recording device, and HC-IP3000 is a motorized CCTV camera that connects to it. The face recognition is all done by the computer system at the centre of the CCTV network, not by the camera. It wouldn’t make any sense to duplicate the same face recognition processing in every single camera when it can be done far more efficiently by a central computer.

The Mail also reports that the system “will be on sale to governments within [the] next year”. Ooh, scary. What they failed to mention is that it will also be on sale to department stores. And anyone else who wants one, for that matter. From the video:

We think this system is suitable for customers that have a relatively large-scale surveillance system, such as railways, power companies, law enforcement, and large stores.

Although the use of face recognition and CCTV raises serious questions in terms of civil liberties, none of this is particularly new. Face recognition has been a part of CCTV for ages now. The Independent reported on the use of this technology by the Metropolitan police back in 1998. So don’t panic. Have another cup of tea.

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Header image: Maple leaves and bamboo stems in autumn at Tenryū-ji garden (天龍寺庭園) in Kyoto. Photo: Frank Gualtieri.

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