crowd-sourced and swarm-based: how is privacy possible with cameras everywhere?

The need, or perception of the need, to protect identities of individuals captured in video footage is leading up to the production of near realtime video editing platforms such as Witness and The Guardian Project’s ObscuraCam. Yet, in what ways have photos and videos been used to pursue state action against individuals? What kind of challenge is privacy and safety for video activists?

Witness’ Cameras Everywhere dossier provides examples of facial recognition used in Iran, Vancouver, and London (p 39). In these cases the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran and the police departments in London and Vancouver aggregated citizen produced videos and photos published on social networks. Posted to websites, the public were invited to identify the individuals in the photos.

The use of crowd-sourcing facial identification techniques by state authorities is worth assessing. While there is a popular expectation that state powers use a variation of the facial recognition software we’re accustomed to using on Facebook or iPhoto, what are some specific examples of where the police have used this software?

Crowd sourcing facial recognition has certain implications. It involves large groups of consenting and non-consenting publics. First, media posted on social networks are gleaned by authorities with or without the consent of the public. Then, we see the public access police websites to go through photos and identify participants in riots (London, Vancouver) and protests (Iran). Vancouver Police Department’s ‘Identify a Suspect’ website is well designed. While some photos were taken by the VPD through court order, a million photos were submitted by the public. A selection of the photos are posted on the website. Clicking on a photo brings up a form through which the public can identify the person the photo. Providing names to the police gives the public a sense of participation in the delivery of justice. Upon a side panel with baseball-like iconography are posted the statistics on how public participation has meaningfully aided police efforts. The site received 13k visits and 75 tips in its first 24 hours.

With cameras everywhere how will a handful of devices with privacy technology help?  More so than visual privacy and anonymity, the image of a crowd-sourced method of content acquisition, identification, and analysis will be further shaped by the mass production of swarm-based media content. By swarm-based I mean the use of unmanned aerial vehicles over domestic airspace with the addition of super-high-resolution video cameras.

With military grade drones approved for domestic airspace, video recording and analysis systems such as the Gorgon Stare and the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System cannot focus on one space at a time, particularly not public spaces. It will be hard to have an expectation of privacy from the Gorgon Stare with its ability to capture a high resolution, facial recognition capable image of a 4 kilometer radius space. The technology is not just used by police. Citizen drones equipped with cameras are already taking to the sky and networking them for a livestream is not a distant dream.

How these images are interfaced for action will determine the location of public space. Where citizen drones and the cameras everywhere in the Occupy Movement interface vision of the street back to the street – an intent to guard the space from police brutality and transmit the image of the protest, crowd-sourced and swarm-based media may also interface a spectacle of cooperation between citizens and state actors within virtual space.

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3 Comments on “crowd-sourced and swarm-based: how is privacy possible with cameras everywhere?”

  1. April 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Great considerations and projections for the future here Christo. I think this points to the need for cooperation with policymakers and experts in human rights, but as mentioned in the Camera Everywhere report, technologies develop much faster than those dinosaurs called Congress and Parliament (I’m reminded that the UK has always ‘developed’ beyond the US in terms of surveillance, it’s sort of weird) and so I guess it will be the work of Global Civil Society in tandem with technologists to determine protections for privacy and human rights.

    • christo
      April 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      Chris, thanks for the comment. I think the contextualization, articulation, or framing of the human image privacy concern can’t be addressed as a problem that public policy over technology can resolve. The dossier (or white paper?) notes “everyone is discussing and designing for privacy of personal data” (19). This is true as far it relates to the commercial use of personal information. The regulations are not the same for state security related agencies.

      The EU’s right to forget bill and writings on the matter here in North America I think make the mistake to focus on cyberspace as some conceptual domain for regulation. The materiality of digital content resists complete certainty of deletion. “Cloud computing” makes this even more complicated as data is distributed across servers and made redundant through backups. Policy will help set limits on how companies and organizations use that information, but non of this will apply to state security apparati. And so we are fixed in a world where we perceive things deleted and forgotten, because of contractual limitations and not physical certainty.

      I like ObscuraCam in that it draws attention to the metadata of photos – masking personally identifiable details. It draws attention to the logical and physical attributes of digital content. It helps to raise awareness, but as a dependable solution it is similar to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s idea to have all computer files associated with a deletion date. The physical properties of digital content cannot be trusted to protect human rights in this way.


  1. Thinking Tactically about Safety and Ethics for Civic Media Practitioners at Protests | Civic Media + Tactical Design in Contested Spaces - April 3, 2012

    […] rights context that is ever shifting with technology. We see this with recent work mentioned in Christo’s post about ObscuraCam and other WITNESS work thinking about metadata in cell phones and identity […]

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