Stop The Lying and Crazy Claims

Author: John Honovich, Published on Apr 28, 2013

The last few weeks have been an embarrassment for surveillance, with a small number of companies turning this into a despicable marketing campaign perpetuating lies and crazy myths about what surveillance did or could do.

To be clear, almost all manufacturers were responsible, many refusing to capitalize on press opportunities. This makes it all the more unfortunate that a few irresponsible organizations have created completely unrealistic expectations, confusing the public and embarrassing the industry. This report explains the problems and highlights some of the worst offenders (for a full list, see our roundup).

Fundamental Problems

The worst possible scenario for using pretty much any video analytic is in large crowds over large areas. It would be hard to imagine a more difficult scene than a marathon:

This impacts all types of analytics:

  • Abandoned object detection: In such scenarios, you would have immense false positives, with many normal people resting their bags on the ground. Equally problematic, you would have critical false negatives, where bombs are dropped, but are obscured from the camera by the movements and positioning of people.
  • Facial Recognition: With wide open outdoor areas, and people looking and moving in all different directions, even getting a quality facial images is incredibly difficult, without even trying to accurately match. And forget about recognizing people wearing baseball caps and sunglasses (like suspect #1).
  • Behavioral Recognition: Some vendors hope to detect 'abnormal' behavior but pretty much everything in a special event, like a once-a-year marathon, is inherently 'abnormal'. There's no magic video analytics that can 'sense' or 'smell' terrorists or bombers.

Unfortunately, even end users sometimes say crazy things like:

"Using facial recognition software and video forensics, they then could cross reference security video of people buying pressure cookers with images — such as those of the two suspects — taken at the marathon finish line"

That's simply magic, not what's feasible in 2013, nor any time soon.

The PR 'First Responders'

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Within hours of the bombing, the first manufacturer went to work, with Chinese surveillance spam champion Cantonk sending out an email blast pushing their products as a solution to future bombings. 

During the manhunt, industry PR firm, CompassPR, sent out a tweet promoting facial recognition, claiming that they 'can help find criminals in record time.'

3VR's PR Agency Solved the Boston Bombing?

The most dominant PR performance, perhaps ever in our industry, was turned in by 3VR, whom the media essentially credited for solving the entire Boston bombing. 3VR was everywhere from ABC News, the NY Times, NPR, CNET, USA Today, Technorati, etc.

The most outrageous was ABC News who headlined "SF company tracking software helps ID suspects" tying together the Boston bombing, Lord & Taylor's surveillance footage, finding the suspects and 3VR's features. Unfortunately, there is zero evidence that 3VR was used at Lord & Taylor or had any role in identifying the Boston bombing suspects. Despite that, article after article featured 3VR.

Finally, days after the Boston police commissioner confirmed that face recognition played no role, 3VR's CEO admitted the obvious:

"Facial surveillance is in productive use today, but was not likely much help for Boston. It takes a deliberate effort to set up facial surveillance and it is not well-suited for the ‘after the fact’ video being used, at least not yet."

That would be fine, if 3VR did not spend the prior two weeks trumpeting their technology, including amazing claims like:

"Even without a name, [3VR's CEO] said, investigators could program multiple cameras at airports and elsewhere with the suspects’ images so the cameras would send an alert to them if someone resembling a suspect passed by."

While they trumpeted 'solutions' that did not contribute nor could have feasibly done so in Boston, the case was 'solved' by a victim who had his legs blown off and an attentive home owner.

Abandoned Object Fantasy

Despite abandoned object detection being discredited for years, it was obvious that some vendors would promote this as a solution. ObjectVideo did not disappoint, going on Fox News claiming "Technology is available today where cameras can automatically detect someone leaving a backpack behind" while showing simplistic scenes totally unlike the Boston bombing, e.g., 

Amazingly, the NY Police Department was featured on the Today Show saying that cameras are now so high tech 'they can actually pick out a bomb even hidden on the street before it goes off'. The example given is another 'abandoned bag in an empty area':

What a shame it would be to depend on 'abandoned object' detection that would certainly deliver massive false alerts as well as most likely miss the extremely rare real bombs.

What Works?

Regular video surveillance is useful for monitoring large crowds and large areas as it helps security operators 'cover' more ground and document what happens.

However, no magic - video analytics, face recognition or otherwise - is going to realistically prevent or stop bombers in crowded public areas.

Comments (22)

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One lesson from the Boston bombings press coverage is that the more responsible larger manufacturers need to actually speak to the media. While it's certainly understandable that they do not want to appear as unethical ambulance chasers, if they refuse to talk, this just makes it easier for unscrupulous smaller ones to make crazy claims. As we examined in our report on 'Getting Coverage in Major Newspapers', reporters simply do not know much about any given domain and are on tight deadlines, so they will take shortcuts frequently, even when it means that the information provided is dangerously wrong.

They had something about media companies jumping the gun in a discussion on the radio, specifically citing all the misinformation that initially came out about the Sandy Hook school shooting, along with other big media items of late. I think the problem is a larger one mostly having to do with us, as a society, hungry for information and rewarding anyone who gets it to us quickly, slanted the way we want it, and failing to punish or criticize sufficiently those who give what later turn out to be glaring factual errors.

Great article John. It's a shame how people go so over board (manufacturers and the media alike).

We all need a reality check from time to time. Especially after the crazies come out and confuse everyone.

Few lines from an article in SLATE.com:

"Peter Millius, Total Recall’s director of business development, said in a phone call. “[The project] is still months away, and the facial recognition right now is not going to be part of this phase.” Then, he put me hold and came back a few minutes later with a different position—insisting that the face-recognition project had in fact been “vetoed” by the Park Police and adding that I was “not authorized” to write about it."

Thanks for sharing - very interesting. Here's another notable quote from that article:

"[Cognitec] had sent a letter ordering me to “refrain from publishing any information about the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty.” It said that I had “false information,” that the project had been “cancelled,” and that if I wrote about it, there would be “legal action.” Total Recall then separately sent me an almost identical letter—warning me not to write “any information about Total Recall and the Statue of Liberty or the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty.” Both companies declined further requests for comment, and Millius at Total Recall even threatened to take legal action against me personally if I continued to “harass” him with additional questions."

Btw, I actually think the Statue of Liberty would be a fairly good site to use facial recognition. It is a relatively small area with an indoor choke point where all visitors need to go through. This removes a lot of complexity in doing this in a marathon or other big open event.

Interesting article on The False Security of Surveillance Cameras (hat tip MM). Interesting quote:

"That we can identify suspects from video footage after the fact — knowing the time, location and method of the attack — does not make it realistic to suppose an observer at a monitor station could have identified the impending attack and intervened in time when those on the ground did not, however comforting that supposition might be.

Terror attacks are (thankfully) so rare and varied that any system with the slightest chance of detecting a real one would necessarily yield a vast, paralyzing number of false positives."

Got to give you credit on this one. As if we didn't already have enough problems trying to convince end users that analytics really work like what they see in CSI. You have to question the ethics of anyone who consistently over sells their product's capabilities. As an SI, one must wonder what the post-sale support will be like when the product doesn't work as advertised.

I am sure I speak for all SIs wham I say to these manufacturers "thanks for making a tough job tougher!"

Dan, as an SI, you get to the be the one who gets yelled at on a daily basis for it not working ;)

This is clearly one of the driving factors that makes engineers more cautious than PR people. An engineer who makes a crazy claim knows they personally can have it come back to bite them. A PR person can say whatever they want and never think twice about the outcome.

An email from an industry professional I received this morning:

"In recent years the security industry has moved from simply providing good services focused on protecting and securing people and assets to a marketing machine driven by profit and greed, supported by a predominantly US media hype. In all, it seems to perpetuate mass fear. These trends also feed into the call to arms in the US that for the most part the rest of the world looks at in amazed confusion, mockery and genuine concern."

John,

While the frustration is justified, we can't blame an industry that tripled in size after 9/11 for "chasing ambulances". There will always be a "sucker" end user that buys into false, hyped, marketing claims...

On a different note, Israel, back in the early 80's had to deal with such events on a monthly basis. It was concluded that no technology can replace the public awareness thus, government paid TV ads such as the one below worked magic on preventing mass casualties and early detection.

It is in Hebrew obviously, but the point is pretty clear without understanding the language:

Point is, if these type events become more common, public awareness is the only prevention method.

The industry can play a big role in forensic analysis which will help collect intelligence, in order to prevent the next attack.

So, in short, no amount of government or money can protect everyone all the time. We have to all work together to keep each other safe.

Sagy,

Thanks for the feedback. The example you shared is roughly similar to the 'See Something, Say Something" US campaign which has significant public detractors. Btw, here's the US Homeland Security promo video on it:

The problem with this approach is the massive number of nuisance alerts / reports it will generate. In the 2 weeks since the Boston bombings, there have been a great number of 'suspicious package' alerts that essentially all were false alerts.

While this is certainly better than ambulance chasing, it too has significant downsides.

John,

There is no silver bullet here. The residential alarm industry costs the tax payer $2B annually in false alarms.

I think that we will all be better off spending that money on false alarms that MAY prevent the loss of human life. The alarm industry in turn can utilize video analytics for the residential market to verify alarms before calling the police. That is actually an area in which Video Analytics can excel in...

Its a win win for the industry and the public :)

I think the difference between the DHS "campaign" and Israel's is that Israel actually faced bombings regularly during the intifadahs so they actually had to produce a campaign that was serious. Not only do they teach specific activities to look, provide documents on suspicious packages, and teach every day people "security questions" to ask suspicious persons, they incorporate it into every day routines of school, work, etc. -- I don't think you can say the same about a couple YouTube videos that DHS has.

Since Boston, 'See Something Say Something' and suspicious activity reporting digital signage is ALL OVER DC. But nowhere do they tell you what suspicious things you should be looking for or the difference between a pipe bomb and a pipe or what a person wearing a suicide vest looks like.

Accounts in these reports (Carnage Interrupted: An Analysis of Fifteen Terrorist Plots Against Public Surface Transportation and Security Awareness for Public Bus Transportation: Case Studies of Attacks Against the Israeli Public Bus System) show the value of having a population educated about what to look for and how they can be useful to deterring attacks. In the second report, "Security Awareness" read: Case 1 – The Kibbutzim Junction" starting on page 12.

Also, this is what the report has to say about surveillance cameras:

Video analytics etc. are just tools. These technologies can help to analyze information more efficiently (in case they are used correctly). Can it help to prevent some event? It is possible but it is not something what can be listed in the specification. Can security system stop intruder? Sure, why not? Ex. PC can be locked in case the user's behaviour is suspicious. I believe that you use some kind of analytics to track access to your articles from different places by one login, don't you? And in case you wish you can ajust system to automaticaly lock this account untill an administrator will check this case (you can lose subscribers in case of false locks but anyway it is possible).

It is indeed unacceptable to make unrealistic claimes but it does not mean that these technologies are fully useless.

Konstantin, the 'technologies' have proven most useful in perimeters - typically areas where people rarely are so that the scene is far simpler.

John, I do not argue regarding the article. I try to say that VA and FR can be used and can add value to a security system. Of course it is difficult to expect to get good results in the crowd but "technologies" are not useless even in this case and it is better to have something than nothing.

Konstantin, I think we have had this discussion a few months ago :)

As to it being 'better to have something than nothing', I disagree. Take abandoned object detection, what's the point of spending a lot of money on something that will invariably trigger tons of false positives while likely missing the super rare abandoned bomb?

John, sure we discussed it and more than once:)

Ok, let's try to imagine some cases which can be based on current technologies, just for example of course:

  • Detection of people with large backpacks. Patrols can get the position of these people and check them.
  • Checking the license plates numbers at the nearby parking lots can help to detect stolen cars and/or cars which license plate is wrong i.e. from the other car (model, color).
  • Temporary metal detector gates can be the most efficient way (it is possible to use FR with pretty good results as well) but of course can lead to traffic jams.

Who offers video analytics that detect people with large backpacks? And, if they exist, what type of FoVs and what type of angle of incident do they require? You might as well have an operator with a PTZ manually scan crowds looking for backpacks and direct guards to do a check (if you want to go that route).

How are you logistically going to put metal detector gates at marathons? This is, of course, not analytics and can be done but it will lead not only to traffic jams but the creation of perimeters/fencing to block people from avoiding the gates.

John,

An interesting aside - we tested "suspicious object detection" at RailCorp and came to the same conclusions that you came to above, however, we did find some useful applications. At our remote sites, which do tend to be low patronage and are unstaffed, we found this technology reasonably useful at detecting rubbish and litter (and, incidentally, the occasional vagrancy)!! So rather than inspect cameras from station after station to look for spills, rubbish and broken glass, the object detection was pretty good at alerting us to this. We've not "operationalised" it as such, as out current system is not compatible with the technology, but we are likely to do something like this, especially for the remote stations.

If there is a lesson in this, it's that camera BDMs don't always think about the client and what might be useful and practical, instead focussing on the glamorous "We save lives" bollocks.

Thanks, Mark. Good feedback!

If you can get 'sterile' environments, video analytic success probabilities go way up. Unfortunately, most of the world is messy!

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