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Opt-In Video Surveillance "Cloak" Aims to Calm Privacy Fears

The "Big Brother" argument -- that citizens are losing their individual privacy rights due to increased public security efforts -- is found in nearly all articles and reporting that cover the growing ubiquity of surveillance cameras worldwide.

Hewlett-Packard computer scientist, Jack Brassil, is hoping to address and resolve such criticisms with a new opt-in surveillance technology, Cloak, that he hopes will limit the privacy invasions presented by massive surveillance networks. According to Brassil, "Rather than prohibit surveillance, our system seeks to discourage surveillers distributing video without the authorization of the surveilled."

Cloak enables those who wish not to be identified in video footage to "opt-in" to the system, essentially making a "do-not-call" list for the surveillance grid. However, with this selection, the person must instead carry a 'privacy enabling device' that enables the image processing software to blur them out of any corresponding surveillance video, yet still allows the system to locate them on the grid.

Brassil is off to a great start in addressing the "loss of anonymity" argument that large-scale surveillance deployments bring to the forefront. However, the system still has a few kinks that need to be addressed before installation.

From a crime prevention standpoint, those that have the most to gain by blurring themselves out are those committing the crimes. In Brassil's proposal, it is impossible to 'un-blur' someone into focus for evidence in a possible investigation. Furthermore, requiring people to register GPS devices that tracks their location as a means to prevent surveillance systems from capturing their image seems to be just trading one modest privacy violation for another (perhaps even more) severe one.

As privacy analyst Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK comments, "People shouldn't have to opt in to get privacy protection. And this system actively invades your privacy because it tells the service where you are at all times."

I commend Brassil in his efforts to resolve some of the privacy repercussions advanced surveillance deployments continue to introduce to society and have a couple suggestions to further improve the developing technology.

In an ideal system, every tracked face and motion activity should be blurred using a "reversible encryption" to enable future investigations if needed. That way, subject to policy (and perhaps subpoena), a person's anonymity can be reversed in a narrowly-focused way to solve crime and/or prove innocence.

Furthermore, the blurring functionality should be tailored to enable monitoring by police without revealing identity. For instance, security officials would be able to see if someone engages in violent or publicly-unacceptable behavior without identifying the individual. However, in an emergency, or if the system identifies a criminal, officials should have the option to disable the blurring feature in order to speed up the necessary response.

With these adjustments, Cloak is a much more workable proposal and more congruent with privacy, legal and societal concerns. Brassil is definitely a visionary in the space, and I hope to hear more about Cloak's progression in the near future.

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