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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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