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3VR Chairman Steve Russell Sits Down with Rajiv Shah

Our chairman and co-founder, Steve Russell, recently sat down with Rajiv Shah, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of the Smart Cameras blog. Below are some of his answers to Rajiv's questions around privacy, vendor comparisons, industry connections to academia and the future of the smart camera market.

Also, be sure to check out Rajiv's
Smart Cameras blog -- it focuses on developments in Chicago's use of video surveillance, as well as other "smart cameras" that utilize additional sensors and/or computer processing techniques. Very cool read.


1. Privacy: What should the industry approach be towards privacy? Should they incorporate features that protect privacy? Should they have default settings that protect privacy or delete information? Or should we not worry about this? Is there a need for an industry-wide approach to this issue?


Conventional wisdom presents ‘privacy vs. security’ as a zero-sum game, one in which gains in one arena necessitate sacrifices in the other. And while there is certainly much truth in this, it is also equally true that in a modern society neither principle can exist without the other. There can be no security without privacy, and no privacy without security.


Today, any meaningful national security failure could create a response that curtails our civil liberties quite broadly. And conversely, next-generation security technologies deployed without adequate privacy and civil liberties protections likely face the crippling backlash of a concerned public. As a result, the security industry needs to take issues of privacy VERY seriously.


For me, an approach to privacy in the context of surveillance starts with a few key principles designed (1) to narrowly tailor a system’s use and (2) to ensure that system access is adequately controlled and audited. Today, conventional “dumb” surveillance systems offer none of these benefits. A large video wall in a security room or command center does nothing to distinguish between security threats and the average person; these systems cast an unnecessarily wide net, relying on human expertise and interest to filter down to focus in on actual security threats.


The issue of what to delete or keep in terms of surveillance becomes much less important on systems where this kind of ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to data access doesn’t exist. For instance, on a
3VR, an investigator might search through many months worth of video information looking for matches or clues relating to the kidnapping of a little girl. However, because this query is done algorithmically using facial recognition, and because the search request is logged and audited, there is ultimately much less concern about the overall retention of video data. The public generally has very little problem with legitimate surveillance investigation that doesn’t subject them to what they feel is needless voyeurism.

Retention of video also becomes less of a concern in the context of new blurring and encryption algorithms designed to protect individual privacy. These new technologies prevent generally tracking and identification of the pubic using surveillance, while preserving the ability of law enforcement and security officials to detect and investigate crime. To better understand what I mean by this, you should take a look at the recent
article in New Scientist
on some of what we are working on in 3VR labs right now.

In any case, issues of data retention, encryption, access control and the like are often more policy issues than industry issues. Instead, our focus should be enabling decision and policy makers to make, monitor and enforce these choices themselves. Our solutions should present options to do all of this...and more. Today, most security solutions don’t include any privacy protections whatsoever. That needs to change; asking someone to chose between security and privacy isn’t much choice at all.


2. Comparing Vendor Solutions: What can be done to make it simpler for end users to compare and contrast different solutions? It's very confusing now for end users to sort through claims by tens of companies on effectiveness, costs, technology, etc.


Normally, I would say that the answer to this question solely involves the emergence of various standards groups, independent testing and analysis organizations -- that is because the best response to confusion is nearly always more good information. And, I do think there is some good news on the horizon in both of those areas with new security analysts, bloggers and agencies entering the marketplace of ideas every day.


However, because many new solutions’ claims today are so specific and require real-world deployment for actual evaluation, the only way for end-users to fully educate themselves may be through pilot and testing projects that they conduct themselves. New technologies being offered today represent a quantum leap over previous generations of security and surveillance solutions, and end users will ultimately need to make a very significant investment in time and money to educate themselves on their benefits.


3. Connections to Academia: Explain if anything needs to be done to expand the connection between industry and academia. After all, much of the engineering talent has come directly from universities. Are there any suggestions you have for universities and their research?


The disconnect between commercial markets and academia is a classic problem seen across many industries, but I have noticed is a particular problem in the security industry. And as a partial result, there has been comparatively little innovation at the core of this market in recent decades. The surveillance methods used to catch criminals hasn't changed drastically with investigators still found staring at video walls or fast-forwarding through video stores looking for needles in haystacks. Plus, the innovations responsible for rapid productivity gains in knowledge workers in other industry segments seems to have largely passed this industry by. Who are security’s Googles, Microsofts, and Oracles?


To begin to address this issue, I think that most importantly security needs to become the province of innovative and interesting companies again. Only by tackling big, tough and important problems can the security industry hope to lure academia’s best and brightest, or focus them on its problems.


As for universities and their research, there is one problem faced by the security industry today greater than all others…and that is a crisis of our own making. It’s “information overload.” There are quite simply too many cameras and sensors today generating way too much information today, and the resulting torrent of data threatens to overrun our entire industry. Identify ways to process and sort and make meaningful this flood, and you will have done us all a great service…and there is probably a job waiting for you at 3VR, as well.


4. Future Growth of Smart Cameras: Have cameras hit a period of steady growth or do you foresee a potential boom ahead? If so, what are the crucial factors that you see that are limiting growth of that will cause growth to increase? Do we need to improve technology, better end-user experience, etc.


Cameras have seen explosive growth already -- sales worldwide are booming. Not only that, but the general sense of a 'camera' is evolving dramatically; dumb cameras, smart cameras, cameras that record at 200 frames per second, cameras integrated with iPods – they're popping up all over the place and exploding in ways that people could not have anticipated. Not only are the types of cameras available growing exponentially, but the data being collected by cameras has increased by a geometric factor far beyond that. New cameras have higher resolution, higher frame rates. More of just about everything!


As a result, we're stuck drinking from the firehose for the time being. We're inundated with data and have no idea what to do with it due to the sheer volume we're faced with. It's coming in too quickly to comprehend, and as a result, we've discovered that it's
not the volume of data you collect, but what you can do with that video (and how quickly) that matters.

The modality of staring at a wall of video screens broadcasting camera streams broke down a long time ago – and we're better off for it. However, as camera volume, quality and speed explodes, we need to figure out how to comprehend and process this volume of data. If we're going to manage the growth of cameras, they don't need to be smarter – we're already capturing more data than we need – but rather more searchable and enable efficient retrieval of vital information.