The New Security: Cameras That Never Forget Your Face
By NOAH SHACHTMAN
The New York Times
January 25, 2006
MANAGEMENT at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco had been
suspicious for weeks. A houseman on the graveyard shift was not the
most productive worker, and trying to reach him on his walkie-talkie
was usually a lost cause. So when the employee could not be found one
summer night, his bosses went to their new video surveillance system.
The camera network -- using software from 3VR Security Inc., a San
Francisco company that makes surveillance technology -- already knew
what the houseman looked like; facial recognition algorithms had built
a profile of him over time. With a couple of mouse clicks, managers
combed through hours of videotape taken that night by the hotel's 16
cameras, and found every place he had been -- including the back
entrance he slipped out of, three hours into his shift. He became 1 of
10 employees dismissed from the hotel since 3VR's surveillance package
was installed last June.
Until recently, the only place where an employee could have been
caught that easily was in a Hollywood script. Digital spy cameras can
instantly pick people out of crowds on the television show "24." But
real-world video surveillance was stuck in the VCR age, taking
countless hours to sift through blurry black-and-white tapes.
Stopping a problem in progress was nearly impossible, unless a guard
just happened to be staring at the right video monitor.
But surveillance companies, using networks of cheap Web-connected
cameras and powerful new video-analysis software, are starting to turn
the Hollywood model into reality. Faces and license plates can now be
spotted, in almost real time, at ports, military bases and
companies. Security perimeters can be changed or strengthened with a
mouse click. Feeds from hundreds of cameras can be combined into a
single desktop view. And videotape that used to take hours, even days,
to scour is searched in minutes.