Big Brother - Now With Added Intelligence

Advances in software for surveillance video help make cameras "smart" about the footage they are collecting of all of us.

CCTV 2.0
CCTV 2.0
Christoph Behrens

MUNICH - The American BRS Labs is a company few have heard of. But in one year, its turnover increased tenfold, to $200 million. It has new offices in Houston, Texas, São Paulo, Brazil and London, UK. The reason for the success of BRS – which stands for Behavioral Recognition Systems – is a surveillance software called AISight.

This software is revolutionizing surveillance at airports and railroad stations worldwide. AISight makes cameras smart. The software watches CCTV footage and can recognize “suspicious or abnormal behavior” – whether it is somebody leaving a suitcase or getting out of a car where they shouldn’t, or climbing over a fence. As soon as the program spots the unusual behavior, it will sound an alarm. This means that a human is no longer necessary to monitor surveillance tapes – a dream for national security authorities.

Munich Central Station - Photo: Tim Dorr

The thinking behind the program is simple. It is estimated that there are 50 million surveillance cameras worldwide. In Great Britain alone, CCTV cameras film each citizen an average of 300 times a day. But the images don’t usually end up serving much – there just isn’t enough personnel to look at and evaluate all the video material, live or not. A machine on the other hand is never distracted, always alert, and doesn’t need a coffee break. So the idea of "intelligent surveillance cameras" fills a huge market demand.

European security experts would love a piece of this action. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) alone is investing over 21 million euros in nine “pattern recognition” projects. German researchers have been trying for three years to get computers to read faces, recognize weapons, and register suspicious movements.

Results have so far been poor. Take for instance ADIS: this algorithm was supposed to recognize potentially dangerous situations in subway stations, for example someone lying on the ground, mass gatherings, attacks and muggings or generally suspicious behavior, says project coordinator Oliver Röbke of the Munich-based company Indanet AG. "Originally, we intended to test the system on public transportation," he says, and one big city transportation company was up for it. However, because of ethical and data protection issues, German IT media and MPs who had viewed the project skeptically from the start kept up the critical stance to the point where testing finally had to be conducted behind closed doors. The planned demonstration of the system in action still hasn’t been done, three months before the project is due to end.

The American version of this software – AISight – has been on the market for three years. Unlike the German engineers, the Americans didn’t design their system with rules that have to be programmed individually for each camera. AISight is a self-learner: similarly to a neural network, it can collect experiences and learn from them – for example, what is “normal” in a given situation -- such as what doors passersby are not allowed to use -- and what isn’t.

A video on the company website says that AISight allows "the computer to do the watching, the learning, and yes, also the thinking." "But if in the course of operations a system learns new things, then as technician I no longer have it under control,” ADIS project manager Zaharya Menevidis, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology, says critically: "And if control eludes you – that is not progress." BRS engineers see things differently. They consider the rules-based European systems to be “outdated.”

Pattern recognition is highly sensitive

"Europe lags behind in security technology," says Ben Hayes, who keeps his eye on the security sector for Statewatch, an organization that monitors State and civil liberties in Europe. However, for other reasons doubts are growing as to whether higher camera-based surveillance expectations can be fulfilled. "The dependability of preventive surveillance is questionable," says a researcher at the Institute for Legal and Criminal Sociology in Vienna, who points out that environmental factors and changing light can falsify results.

According to this source, this results in an "unacceptably high number of false alarms." The German federal crime control agency BKA experienced this in 2007, after it installed face-recognition technology at the main train station in Mainz, western Germany. It was mostly too dark to recognize individual faces. "The money would be much better spent on construction – if there was more light in subway stations they’d be safer,” says Stephan Urbach of the Pirate Party.

Photo: nolifebeforecoffee

But security is only an apparent concern of intelligent surveillance. Much more appealing are the financial prospects for the technology sector. Market researchers at the Washington DC-based Homeland Security Research Corp. are predicting that by 2016 the global market for intelligent surveillance will have quadrupled. This is certainly a reason why the BMBF considers its pattern recognition program in terms of promoting the economy: German companies "should be able to benefit from this booming market."

The European Union is also keen to get equipped with intelligent surveillance devices, especially at its outer borders, and at least 60 million euros have been spent over the past few years on "intelligent" – which is to say automated – border control under the heading "Smart Borders." The European Commission is also considering building up an autonomous fleet of drones for border protection: Oparus – Open Architecture for UAV-based Surveillance System; and Wimaas – Wide Maritime Area Airborne Surveillance. A project called Talos would, parallel to Oparus and Wimaas, develop robots to patrol borders and spot intruders.

All these ideas are just research projects, the European Commission stresses. And indeed until now the program has produced expensive misses and little that is concrete. For example, the Commission spent 3.5 million euros on Amass (Autonomous Maritime Surveillance System) aiming to improve maritime security, and cut down on illegal immigration, by equipping the coastline with sensors on platforms. "A significant amount of the technology went under and the Canary Island platform sunk in bad weather,” says a person in charge of the project who wishes to remain anonymous.

Economics aside, intelligent surveillance is also subject to some fundamental questions. "Pattern recognition is highly sensitive because you’re marrying analog and digital," says Thilo Weichert, who is in charge of data protection for the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. People, not machines, should have the decision-power, he says. Also, a disadvantage of pattern recognition is that uninvolved third parties captured by the system have to be deleted from it.

"And where do the criteria for pattern recognition come from?" asks Regina Ammicht Quinn of the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities in Tübingen. "If they come from experts then there is the danger that a specific way of viewing the world is programmed into the system.” However, if the criteria are statistically determined, then the statistically normal, which is to say the most frequently recorded behavior by the cameras, would become the “desirable” behavior.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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