Neighbors are using these smart cameras to track strangers’ cars — and yours

… class of 2017 and has since raised nearly $20 million in funding from tech heavyweights including Matrix Partners and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.

On a quiet road south of Ventura Boulevard, two cameras on a pole watch over the road, facing opposite directions.

A block away, another brace of cameras sit sentry. Together, they constantly film the two points of entry to a closed loop of public streets in Sherman Oaks.

Nearby, on a dual-screen setup in the basement of his hillside home, Robert Shontell pulls up hundreds of snippets of footage captured by the cameras earlier that day. Each shows a car, time-stamped and tagged with the make, model, paint color and license plate.

He searches for a silver Honda spotted between the hours of 1 and 2 p.m. After some scrolling, a shot of my car — and me — pops up.

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“The most surprising thing is just how many cars drive through the neighborhood each day,” Shontell says. And every one ends up filmed by the motion-activated cameras, then tagged and entered in the database by the machine vision software powering the system.

Residents of the neighborhood had pooled their money to rent these cameras, and the software behind them, from Flock Safety — an Atlanta-based company that has found clients for its automatic license plate readers in safety-conscious communities, homeowners’ associations and local police departments across 30 states.

The company’s pitch: With its cameras, residents can track every vehicle that passes through their neighborhood. If a burglar strikes, they can check and see which cars were spotted in the area around the time of the crime, and pass that footage on to police. To allay privacy concerns, only the residents have access to the footage, and it automatically deletes after 30 days.

Costs vary depending on the client, but Flock generally charges $2,000 per camera per year for the service, and reports that more than 400 communities are using its product. It’s backed by serious Silicon Valley investment: The company was a member of prominent start-up accelerator Y Combinator’s summer class of 2017 and has since raised nearly $20 million in funding from tech heavyweights including Matrix Partners and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.

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“Our cameras are helping solve two crimes every single day right now,” said Josh Thomas, Flock’s head of marketing. The company said it couldn’t share details of every case but did note that the technology was integral to a recent arrest of a ring of 24 sexual predators in north Georgia, and local media outlets report a steady drumbeat of burglaries and car thefts that Flock helped to solve. “If we can reach further scale and put out more detective-like cameras on every street corner, we can solve more crime.”

Flock’s push to put a camera on every corner comes at a time when smart cameras and social media are combining to create a newly paranoid model of neighborhood life. The message boards on Nextdoor, a social service that requires users to verify their addresses to ensure that only true locals are allowed to post, are rife with reports of suspicious noises, cars and people.

Footage from Ring, a video doorbell company, often ends up on Nextdoor or shared on its in-house social network, Neighbors. Recent reporting from Motherboard has revealed that local police have signed secret agreements to hawk Ring systems to their local communities, and BuzzFeed found that the company is testing out facial recognition technology with its clients in Ukraine.

License plate reader technology, which has been used by the Los Angeles Police Department and agencies across the state for years, has raised concerns among privacy advocates, and the state of California is investigating the legality of its use in law enforcement.

“License plate readers have been recognized by the Legislature and lots of police departments — and certainly civil liberty groups — as technology that can violate people’s privacy by tracking their movements without their consent,” said David Maass, senior investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties nonprofit.

The leap from traditional security camera systems to those powered by machine vision, like automatic license plate readers, is as vast as the difference between an analog library and the modern internet. Before, a human would have to pore over hours of footage from multiple cameras to try to piece together a car’s movement through a neighborhood, let alone an entire city. Now, the software can instantly spit out a list of all sightings, effectively creating a shot-by-shot map of a car’s whereabouts.

And while the technology is more accurate than its machine vision cousin, facial recognition software, false positives remain a risk.

Last year in Contra Costa County, a license plate reader spotted a car on the freeway listed as stolen in a state database. Police pulled the car over, approached with guns drawn, handcuffed the driver and his passenger, and forced them to kneel on the pavement at gunpoint, believing them to be dangerous. But the stolen car database was out of date — the car was a rental and had been reported stolen, then recovered, earlier in the year.

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Outcry over incidents like this prompted state legislators in 2015 to pass a law regulating how public agencies can use automatic license plate readers, but recent pushback from privacy advocates, backed by research indicating that law enforcement may not be following the law, prompted the state auditor to launch a probe into the technology’s use in June.

Flock’s extension of the same technology into the private sphere raises another set of concerns: Private citizens are unlikely to receive the same training, or be subject to the same oversight, as public employees. A neighborhood administrator could easily search local Flock records to track a spouse’s whereabouts. And while the onus is currently on Flock clients to send their footage to police to assist in an investigation, there’s little stopping police, once they know cameras are in place, from requesting footage from Flock users to track anyone who passes through the area — a practice that’s already common with Ring video.

“Our customers are the ones who own all the footage. We don’t access it, we don’t share it with third parties, we don’t sell it. They can share that with their local law enforcement in the event of the crime if they choose,” said Flock’s Thomas.

“It would be a breach of contract if they were to use it for other nefarious purposes,” he added. “We would end our contract and take it back,” though he noted that with no access to a client’s account, the company has no way to monitor the systems for abuse.

Shontell said that he and his neighbors started looking into the company after a series of break-ins on their street, having heard about it from friends who live in a nearby hillside neighborhood, and decided to install the cameras earlier this summer. As a career film and TV editor, he volunteered to be one of the technical administrators for the system.

During the setup process, users can add a list of residents’ plates, to avoid mistaking a neighbor for an interloper. Those with a direct line to the system administrators can also request that footage of their cars not be logged in the system. Shontell said that the neighborhood group went door to door to let every household know they were installing the cameras, but there’s no legal requirement that they do so.

Flock also records footage of cyclists and pedestrians moving past its cameras. Users can search in those broad categories by time, scrolling through a list of every person who walked or biked by, but the more advanced search criteria only work for cars. The interface also has a “dog” category, which largely consists of clips of people walking their dogs.

The street has been crime-free so far, but Shontell said his neighbors — many of whom have private cameras or Ring systems for their own homes — feel safer with a belt-and-suspenders approach to neighborhood security.

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“We can tell who’s coming and going 24/7. Some people might have an issue with that,” Shontell said. “I tend to think personally that what you might give up in terms of privacy is overshadowed by what you gain: possibly having some real evidence to give the police.”

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The Week in Tech: YouTube Fined $170 Million Over Child Privacy Violations

I cover artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and other “emerging technologies” for The New York Times. Today I’m here to give you the lowdown on …

British court allows live facial recognition

Don’t misbehave in Britain anytime soon — at least not in public. Adam Satariano reported that a British court had ruled that governments could use live facial recognition technology without violating human rights. In other words, the police are free to use cameras in public spaces to identify people in real time.

Facial recognition technology is improving rapidly, and many legal and ethical questions loom as police departments and other government organizations increase their use of it in countries across the globe, from Britain to the United States to China.

Brought by a resident of South Wales, where the police have deployed live facial recognition, the High Court case is one of the first of its kind. The South Wales police and crime commissioner hailed the court’s decision. Ed Bridges, the man who brought the suit, vowed to appeal.

“This sinister technology undermines our privacy, and I will continue to fight against its unlawful use to ensure our rights are protected and we are free from disproportionate government surveillance,” Mr. Bridges said.

In China, according to reporting by my colleague Paul Mozur, the government is using the technology to track ethnic minorities. Other issues abound. Public advocates — and many experts in artificial intelligence — are concerned that facial recognition technology can be biased against women and minorities.


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Behind the Rise of China’s Facial-Recognition Giants

CB Insights said the company was valued at $4 billion earlier this year. Reuters reports that its public listing will raise at least $500 million, but the …

Unfamiliar faces aren’t welcome at Beijing public housing projects. To prevent illegal subletting, many have facial-recognition systems that allow entry only to residents and certain delivery staff, according to state news agency Xinhua. Each of the city’s 59 public housing sites is due to have the technology by year’s end.

Artificial intelligence startup Megvii mentioned a similar public housing security contract in an unspecified Chinese city in filing for an initial public offering in Hong Kong last week. The Chinese company, best-known for facial recognition, touts its government dealings, including locking down public housing to curb subletting, as a selling point to potential investors.

Megvii’s filing shows the scale of China’s ambitions in artificial intelligence and how they could influence the use of surveillance technologies like facial recognition around the world. The company is one of four Chinese AI startups specializing in facial recognition valued at more than $1 billion, qualifying them as unicorns in Silicon Valley-speak. Now, the companies are looking to expand overseas, with help from public markets.

“These companies have benefited from China’s government making it a national priority to be the world leader in AI,” says Rebecca Fannin, author of the forthcoming Tech Titans of China and two previous books about China’s tech scene. That support has led to contracts and freed up government and private funds, she says. “Now you are starting to see these companies go global.”

Freedom House, a US-government-backed nonprofit, warned in a report last October that Chinese surveillance deals also export the country’s attitudes to privacy and could encourage companies and governments to collect and expose sensitive data. It argues that companies and products built to serve government agencies unconcerned about privacy are unlikely to become trustworthy defenders of human rights elsewhere, and can be forced to serve Chinese government interests.

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Megvii’s filing says it has raised more than $1.3 billion, primarily from Chinese investment funds and companies, including ecommerce giant Alibaba. One of China’s state-owned VC funds also has a stake and a seat on the startup’s board. Other backers include US-based venture firm GGV and the sovereign wealth funds of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. CB Insights said the company was valued at $4 billion earlier this year. Reuters reports that its public listing will raise at least $500 million, but the figure is redacted from the company’s filing. Fannin says larger rival SenseTime, valued at $4.5 billion per CB Insights and also expanding overseas, is expected to go public soon. Its international ambitions could be helped by having US investors in Qualcomm and Silver Lake Capital.

Demand for Megvii’s computer-vision systems is growing rapidly. The company reported revenue of 1.4 billion yuan ($200 million) in 2018, more than four times a year earlier. It posted losses of 3.4 billion yuan ($469 million). The “City IoT” segment of its business that provides surveillance and security systems, like access control for public housing, accounts for nearly three-fourths of its revenue and has customers in more than 15 “countries and territories” outside China. That division also offers software that can spot traffic offenses or changing traffic flows caught on video.

In the first six months of this year, Megvii says 4.9 percent of its revenue came from outside China, compared with 2.7 percent for all of last year. Now, it plans to establish joint ventures or offices in Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and the Middle East.

Megvii was founded in 2011 by Yin Qi and two friends from Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University. The company’s name is short for “mega vision”—also the rough translation of its Chinese name, 旷视. Their venture was perfectly timed to surf the swell of interest in AI prompted by the emergence of a technology called deep learning in 2012, which made software that interprets images much more accurate.

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Chinese University Tests Facial Recognition System to Monitor Attendance and Students’ Attention …

A Chinese university has defended its move to set up a facial recognition system in selected areas on its campus so it can keep tabs on its students.

Steffi Loos/Getty Images

The university will use the pilot project to decide whether to expand the system to all classrooms.

“The school is taking action to cut down on students skipping class, leaving classes early, paying for a substitute to attend classes for them and not listening in class.

“A class room is a public place, so this system will not lead to a violation of personal privacy,” Xu said.

However, the South China Morning Post reported that social media users said that the move had chilling overtones, with one user of Weibo writing: “What kind of talent are they trying to cultivate? I’ve never seen such a method.”

Another wrote: “If this system was being installed in Europe or America, they’d be sued and the school would have to close down.”

China’s use of high-tech surveillance has been controversial. In May, a house intelligence committee hearing raised concerns about China’s use of surveillance technology to control its population.

“Citizens of China today live their lives bounded by the guardrails of ubiquitous surveillance and pervasive influence operations—all in the name of the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to retain political control,” Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in the hearing.

Last month, the technology was raised in connection with the Hong Kong protests, in light of the use of so-called “smart lampposts.”

During street action last week, a group of protesters hiding their faces with umbrellas, cut down a smart lamppost over worries such technology would be used for surveillance by Chinese authorities, Australia’s ABC News reported.

The semi-autonomous Chinese city plans to install about 400 of the smart lampposts in four urban districts.

Last week, one of the leading providers in the field of face recognition, Megvii, filed papers for a listing on Hong Kong’s stock exchange, the BBC reported.

Megvii is the maker of the Face++ system and is one of the country’s best known artificial intelligence (AI) companies.

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    Megvii commits to guard against weaponization of facial recognition technology

    A short delay was also expected following accusations from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the tech company’s Face++ app, China’s cloud-based …

    As controversial debates and protests against the ethical use of facial recognition technology in daily operations increase around the world, Chinese facial recognition startup Megvii Technology is not only preparing for public listing with the Hong Kong stock exchange, but has made a public commitment to fight off the weaponization of AI in mass surveillance.

    According to the filing submitted to the Hong Kong stock exchange, the committee will focus on integrity and privacy protection, among others. The seven-year old Beijing-based startup has created a committee that will monitor arising issues, to then submit recommendations to Megvii management, reports South China Morning Post.

    “Given the uncertainties in our industry, we strive to build rather than disrupt industries, to change how people work for the better, and to find solutions that respect people’s dignity and privacy,” states Yin Qi, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “These are real policies, not mere words. Still, we acknowledge that challenges remain and these are early days.”

    The company’s decision to go public came unexpectedly, considering the negative media coverage of facial recognition technology around the world. A short delay was also expected following accusations from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the tech company’s Face++ app, China’s cloud-based identity authentication platform, was part of a major surveillance operation undergone by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang Uygur region. The New York watchdog later retracted its accusations.

    Another conflict that may have slowed down progress was the startup’s decision to get involved in a Pentagon project related to AI weapons, conflict that generated protests from Google employees.

    Due to political and economic unrest in China caused by the US-China trade war, Chinese e-commerce conglomerate, and top investor in the startup, Alibaba chose to postpone its $15 billion public listing with the Hong Kong stock exchange.

    Megvii not only develops facial recognition technology, but also works on improving traffic management through AI algorithms. In spite of Beijing’s recession, the company aims to raise between $500 million and $1 billion in public offering, writes Reuters.

    Article Topics

    artificial intelligence | best practices | biometrics | China | ethics | facial recognition | Megvii | stocks

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