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article imageOp-Ed: Chinese super camera can identify ‘tens of thousands’ of people

By Paul Wallis     Sep 26, 2019 in Technology
Beijing - In what is definitely a major breakthrough in high-resolution photography, but a horror story for privacy, China has unveiled a super-camera capable of identifying thousands of people. This is a new level of surveillance which has many people worried.
The 500 megapixel camera was shown for the first time at China's International Industry Fair. It was developed by researchers Fudan University and Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Consider this packaging:
1. The camera incorporates artificial intelligence, cloud capabilities and an astonishing level of resolution, said to be five times more than the human eye.
2. It is capable of operating in real time and already has facial recognition built in.
3. It can capture still images and record video.
4. The ability to cover a whole crowd means good high resolution and a very respectable focal capacity if it can positively identify individual faces over an area occupied by thousands of people.
The photographic world has been to put it mildly stunned. This blows a lot of existing tech clear out of the water. If you know anything at all about photography, you’ll appreciate that this is even better than satellite cameras which can identify which book you’re reading from space. Add real time imagery, A.I. processing, and active recognition, and this is no trivial bit of technology.
To be fair about this – Such high resolution is more likely to be known by the future as a huge breakthrough in basic imaging technologies. It’s incredible. This is the sort of resolution you’d need for 3D video, etc. This camera’s descendants will go into space, where they belong, to deliver better visuals than ever before.
Shock, horror and no allegations of technology theft?
The camera isn’t even deployed yet, but the rhetoric was quick to set in. The instant global response, however, was horror. China’s much-doubted, much-feared “Social Credit” system was automatically cited to call the new camera an instrument of oppression in all but name.
Rather unusually, the camera hasn’t been instantly described as a technology theft, though. That presumably happens later. Some experts say that managing such huge amounts of data would be difficult, but let’s face it – The camera doesn’t have to do that itself. Data can be back-ended for those purposes, and any Big Data system could do it reasonably quickly and effectively.
The local response has been rather muted, apart from possible security and military applications. It’s pretty obvious that this camera can be used in ways which privacy is compromised “on principle” simply by being collected. This thing could scan thousands of people who’d instantly be on record.
The trouble with facial recognition is…?
There is actually a possible drawback to this level of accuracy. Cameras photograph reflected light. How that light reflects can be altered using almost anything which can affect resolution. Tones, shades, and similar aspects per pixel can make a big difference.
Everyone knows what a pixelated picture looks like on normal pixel settings. Now imagine distortions, maybe just small ones, which camouflage a human face. Every feature on a face has characteristics, biometrics, which can be used to identify. Change those, even slightly, and you may “recognise” the wrong person.
Facial recognition software is definitely NOT infallible. In fact, the mistakes are costing some people big money, and some embarrassment. The UK Metropolitan Police achieved an astounding 81% error rate on their current recognition suite.
That, of course, hasn’t stopped people spending billions on it. The Surveillance Society believes in itself, even if nobody else does. Big money also wants to make big money, so the theory of facial recognition feeds itself.
Other applications? Quite a few spring to mind
This camera is obviously too good and too important to waste as a snoop gadget attached to lousy software.
For example:
• Spectroscopy: What happens if you hook up a spectrometer to this thing? Better resolution could also deliver better results.
• Global surveys: Modern photographic surveys are pretty good, but not this good. Add that resolution and some very basic calculations, and you could survey a pimple on someone’s face, or a whole region, with accuracy.
• Space telescopes: Better imagery is the call of the wild to space telescopes. This camera may be a bit overqualified, but what could it do?
• Any kind of research: This camera is a born microscope. It could produce the best images ever of so many microscopic things which are still just out of reach of visual imagery.
The only possible problem, perhaps
I really don’t want to rain on the parade for such an achievement, but there is a possible issue here – Intellectual property. One of the major sticking points with China is its each-way approach to intellectual property rights. China claims it has acquired intellectual property fairly and legally through trade. Some disagree. China’s enforcement of IP rights is also in question.
It would be a truly sad outcome if this incredibly valuable bit of intellectual property were to be compromised by IP disputes or even theft. It shouldn’t happen, and I hope most sincerely that it doesn’t. The camera deserves so much better.
That said - As China’s research evolves, it will generate more high-value technologies, and acquire an ever-increasing volume of IP to protect. It would be nice if these disputes can be put to rest before they put China’s research at risk. Let’s hope this truly incredible camera is spared that issue.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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