Surveillance Cameras Get Smarter

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Tue Feb 27 03:42:45 PST 2007

Surveillance Cameras Get Smarter

By Stephen Manning
Posted 26 February 2007 @ 06:35 am EST

The next time you walk by a shop window, take a glance at your reflection. How
much do you swing your arms? Is the weight of your bag causing you to hunch
over? Do you still have a bit of that 1970s disco strut left?

Look around - You might not be the only one watching. The never-blinking
surveillance cameras, rapidly becoming a part of daily life in public and even
private places, may be sizing you up as well. And they may soon get a lot

Researchers and security companies are developing cameras that not only watch
the world but also interpret what they see. Soon, some cameras may be able to
find unattended bags at airports, guess your height or analyze the way you
walk to see if you are hiding something.

Most of the cameras widely used today are used as forensic tools to identify
crooks after-the-fact. (Think grainy video on local TV news of convenience
store robberies gone wrong.) But the latest breed, known as "intelligent
video," could transform cameras from passive observers to eyes with brains,
able to detect suspicious behavior and potentially prevent crime before it

Surveillance cameras are common in many cities, monitoring tough street
corners to deter crime, watching over sensitive government buildings and even
catching speeders. Cameras are on public buses and in train stations, building
lobbies, schools and stores. Most feed video to central control rooms, where
they are monitored by security staff.

The innovations could mean fewer people would be needed to watch what they
record, and make it easier to install more in public places and private

"Law enforcement people in this country are realizing they can use video
surveillance to be in a lot of places at one time," said Roy Bordes, who runs
an Orlando, Fla.-based security consulting company. He also is a council vice
president with ASIS International, a Washington-based organization for
security officials.

The advancements have already been put to work. For example, cameras in
Chicago and Washington can detect gunshots and alert police. Baltimore
installed cameras that can play a recorded message and snap pictures of
graffiti sprayers or illegal dumpers.

In the commercial market, the gaming industry uses camera systems that can
detect facial features, according to Bordes. Casinos use their vast banks of
security cameras to hunt cheating gamblers who have been flagged before.

In London, one of the largest users of surveillance, cameras provided key
photos of the men who bombed the underground system in July 2005 and four more
who failed in a second attempt just days later. But the cameras were only able
to help with the investigation, not prevent the attacks.

Companies that make the latest cameras say the systems, if used broadly, could
make video surveillance much more powerful. Cameras could monitor airports and
ports, help secure homes and watch over vast borders to catch people crossing

Intelligent surveillance uses computer algorithms to interpret what a camera
records. The system can be programmed to look for particular things, like an
unattended bag or people walking somewhere they don't belong.

"If you think of the camera as your eye, we are using computer programs as
your brain," said Patty Gillespie, branch chief for image processing at the
Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md. Today, the military funds much of the
smart-surveillance research.

At the University of Maryland, engineering professor Rama Chellappa and a team
of graduate students have worked on systems that can identify a person's
unique gait or analyze the way someone walks to determine if they are a

A camera trained to look for people on a watch list, for example, could
combine their unique walk with facial-recognition tools to make an
identification. A person carrying a heavy load under a jacket would walk
differently than someone unencumbered - which could help identify a person
hiding a weapon. The system could even estimate someone's height.

With two cameras and a laptop computer set up in a conference room, Chellappa
and a team of graduate students recently demonstrated how intelligent
surveillance works.

A student walked into the middle of the room, dropped a laptop case, then
walked away. On the laptop screen, a green box popped up around him as he
moved into view, then a second focused on the case when it was dropped. After
a few seconds, the box around the case went red, signaling an alert.

In another video, a car pulled into a parking lot and the driver got out, a
box springing up around him. It moved with the driver as he went from car to
car, looking in the windows instead of heading into the building.

In both cases, the camera knew what was normal - the layout of the room with
the suspicious bag and the location of the office door and parking spots in
the parking lot. Alerts were triggered when the unknown bag was added and when
the driver didn't go directly into the building after parking his car.

Similar technology is currently in use by Marines in Iraq and by the subway
system in Barcelona, according to ObjectVideo, a Reston, Va., firm that makes
surveillance software.

ObjectVideo uses a "tripwire system" that allows users to set up virtual
perimeters that are monitored by the cameras. If someone crosses that
perimeter, the system picks it up, sends out an alert, and security staff can
determine if there is a threat.

Company spokesman Edward Troha predicts the technology, currently designed
primarily to protect borders, ports and other infrastructure, could be adapted
to help prevent retail theft or guard private homes.

The Jacksonville Port Authority uses ObjectVideo software as part of its
security measures to watch the perimeter of the Florida port that handles 8.7
million tons of cargo and thousands of cruise ship passengers each year. The
surveillance system sends real-time video from anywhere at the port of
possible intruders to patrol cars.

Still, industry officials say the technology needs to improve before it can be
widely used. There are liability issues, such as if someone is wrongly tagged
as a threat at an airport and misses a flight, said Bordes. Troha warns humans
are still essential to intelligent video, to tell, for example, if a person in
a restricted area is a danger or just lost.

And the cameras can only see so much - they can't stop some threats, like a
bomber with explosives in a backpack. They can't see what you are wearing
under your jacket - yet.

"That is an eventual goal, but we're not there yet," said Chellappa.

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Eugen* Leitl <a href="">leitl</a>
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