Friday, 20 March 2009

When does ‘innovation’ become intrusion?

(By Anthony Miller – Friday, 20th March 2009 8:30am). I’m not so sure I’d go as far as calling it ‘serendipity’, but two ‘innovations’ were brought to my intention yesterday which individually sent shivers down my spine – and together caused my spinal column to turn to ice! They are Google Street Views (which I shall call GSV as I’m a lazy typist), and new facial recognition technology that Logica is trialling in Denmark, which they demonstrated (sort of) to a bunch of us analysts in their swish new London HQ.

Let me first put on record that I just hate the word ‘innovation’ (dictionary definition: ‘something newly introduced)’. It is now so overworked that everything anyone does is ‘innovative’. For goodness sake, isn’t anything we do ‘routine’ anymore?

Putting that aside, let’s talk about GSV. I have mixed views (I know; analysts shouldn’t sit on the fence, but there we go). I like the idea of being able to plan a trip and actually be able to see the roads I can drive down (and those I probably shouldn’t!). But what about my personal privacy? I checked my home address (of course) and our house is there with my car outside – the number plate tastefully blurred, though if you zoom in close enough you can see the last couple of characters. On the TV this morning, Google’s UK MD (sorry – I missed his name due to especially noisy conflakes) claimed that the Met Police didn’t expect GSV to result in increased crime. Though isn’t it handy to be able look for streets with the nicest cars parked from the comfort of your own PC? I know it’s not real-time but it’s a good place to start if I were researching my next heist.

Logica’s facial recognition technology is scary, but the Danish team presenting it tried hard to put a ‘kinder, gentler face’ on it. Basically, it can recognise people pretty much on the fly (not literally, I hasten to add!). It’s being trialled commercially as a ‘gatekeeper’ system at an amusement park so that only customers who have paid their entry fee can re-enter the grounds. Logica is not the only company working on such technology, of course, but they seem to have it in a pretty advanced state of development – with some 96% recognition accuracy, we were told. I’m still not sure what’s wrong with an automated, ticket-based re-entry system, which would surely be far less Big Brother-ish.

But here’s the good news. Put the two technologies together and we solve the problem for which Capita has just won a £25m contract – the 2011 census. Instead of sending out millions of forms, why don’t we just have Google’s GSV camera vans perpetually touring the country (a bit like US AWAC aircraft continuously flying the skies; oh my goodness – there’s a thought!) equipped with Logica’s facial recognition technology and simply count the population. Heck, we could sort them by height, weight, race, dress sense, and who knows what else. Might come in a lot under £25m too.

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