The US government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.
The Department of Homeland Security tested a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System – or BOSS – last fall after two years of government-financed development. Although the system is not ready for use, researchers say they are making significant advances. That alarms privacy advocates, who say that now is the time for the government to establish oversight rules and limits on how it will someday be used.
There have been stabs for over a decade at building a system that would help match faces in a crowd with names on a watch list – whether in searching for terrorism suspects at high-profile events like a presidential inaugural parade, looking for criminal fugitives in places like Times Square or identifying card cheats in casinos.
The automated matching of closeup photographs has improved greatly in recent years, and companies like Facebook have experimented with it using still pictures.
But even with advances in computer power, the technical hurdles involving crowd scans from a distance have proved to be far more challenging . Despite occasional much-hyped tests, including one as far back as the 2001 Super Bowl, technical specialists say crowd scanning is still too slow and unreliable.
The release of the documents about the government’s efforts to overcome those challenges comes amid a surge of interest in surveillance matters inspired by the leaks by Edward J Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor. Interest in video surveillance was also fuelled by the attack on the Boston Marathon, where suspects were identified by officials looking through camera footage.