Archive for the 'Surveillance' Category

Predestination: Loca and mobile surveillance

September 23, 2006

Imagine that you are walking down the street when you hear a beep from your phone.  You see a message reading:

“You were in a flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park; are you in love?”

The thing is – you were in the flower shop an hour ago and then you did go to the park for half an hour!

How would you react to this message? How would it make you feel? (loca-lab.org)

Well, I’m not sure how I’d feel. “Creeped-out” comes to mind. But as soon as I found out that these strange stalker-like text-messages were part of a city-wide art project, I’d probably feel pretty cool and want to learn more.

Loca, “an artist-led interdisciplinary project on mobile media and surveillance,” uses a network of Bluetooth nodes scattered around the city to track the movements of anyone with a Bluetooth-enabled device. The tracking data is fed into a database, which is then parsed according to “urban semantics” to make guesses about what the tracked individual is up to. The system then sends a potentially relevant message to the subject, such as the “are you in love?” question above.

See also: John Krumm‘s talk at Ubicomp 2006, “Predestination: Inferring Destination from Partial Trajectories” (.pdf).

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Ubicomp and Social Science

September 21, 2006

The Mass Observation meme just won’t go away in these parts. While browsing various roundups of Ubicomp 2006, I came across this post on Pasta and Vinegar:

…the most interesting part (to me) was the discussion about the bridge between qualitative and quantitative methods. Yahoo/UC Berkeley’s Marc Davis advocated for a new “computational social science” that would use mixed-methods (quali-quanti), aka “the new social science of the 21st century”. His point was that we have access to an incredible quantity of data (ranging from interview to logged actions) that would allow us to gain information about different layers: from micro scale cognitive insights to large group processes (social groups, national issues…).

Unlike Anne which states that “quantitative methods are still being trotted out to save qualitative methods from their perceived inadequacies, a.k.a. “Real Science To The Rescue!”“, I haven’t felt that. Given the fact that the conversant were largely qualitative-data oriented, he tried to summarize the advantages of bridging both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis:

  • Large datasets can enable us to know who to talk to (who to interview, or with whom to deepen the study with ethnographic methods): who are representatives (or not) in the groups
  • It can allow to reveal unconscious behavior (that users cannot state)
  • A nice avenue of research they’re pushing forward in his team is to compute visualizations (based on quantitative data) and then get back to the users to discuss with them. This is exactly what I am doing with CatchBob! visualizations of coordination as well as presenting the players a replay of their activity. This provides a basis for the discussion about “what they did” and “why they did it” (with of course some different “epistemological levels”).
  • Qualitative analysis can also allow to redesign the sensors and the logged information that would be better suitable/more interesting. (Pasta and Vinegar)

Real Time Geographic Radio

September 20, 2006

Continuing on the theme of Mass Observation, check out yes.com, a nifty Flash site that displays what’s playing on radio stations across the U.S. — as the songs are played.

Google Trends and the meaning of life

September 18, 2006

George Dyson reports: “My visit to Google? … The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. ‘We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,’ explained one of my hosts after my talk. ‘We are scanning them to be read by an AI.’” (onlamp.com)

Google Labs offers a tiny window onto some of the content analysis systems that will eventually combine into a practical artificial intelligence. Projects such as Google Sets demonstrate the latent potential for massive index archives like Google to learn through semantic association.

Other projects, like Google Trends, illustrate a broader vision, going beyond individual texts and their relationships to one another and looking instead at things like regional search behaviour patterns (for example, you can find out which city produces the most searches for the keyword “cold”), incidence of related news articles (to observe such things as the spikes in news references to “peace” that always follow the spikes in references to “terror”) and other data relating to the habits of search-engine users around the world. And while this information may ultimately be of most use to the AI coders at Google, it’s a goldmine for the present-day Mass-Observationist. Here’s a list of fifteen things I noted during a recent session with Google Trends:

  1. South Korea is consistently more popular than North Korea. “South Korea”, “North Korea”
  2. The beard is a much more frequent subject of search queries than is the moustache: “Moustache”, “Beard”
  3. French philosopher Michel Foucault is more often searched for than his contemporary Jacques Derrida: “Foucault”, “Derrida”
  4. Hockey is of more concern to web users than NASCAR: “NASCAR”, “Hockey”
  5. “Potato” and “tomato” searches yield very different seasonal results: “Potato”, “Tomato”
  6. The graph tracking the incidence of the keywords “abortion” and “terror” shows a predictable pattern, with both words spiking in tandem just before the ’04 US election: “Abortion”, “Terror”
  7. War and peace maintain their usual relationship: “War”, “Peace”
  8. Something big seems to be happening RIGHT NOW on the “tube” front, and it probably has something to do with you: “Tube”
  9. Web searchers want to know more about how to make things than they do about how to break them apart: “Create”, “Destroy”
  10. Laughter is the best medicine: “Tragic”, “Comic”, “Epic”, “Heroic”
  11. Hats, unlike boots, have a consistent and timeless appeal: “Hats”, “Boots”
  12. Dancing became an urgent subject of inquiry in early 2006: “Dancing”
  13. “Rich” is a more popular search than “poor”, perhaps because “poor” appears more often in the news: “Rich”, “Poor”
  14. Pepsi has a slight edge over Coke, and both companies seemingly follow a similar press-release schedule: “Coke”, “Pepsi”
  15. People want to think happy thoughts, perhaps because of the differential between joy and pain: “Joy”, “Pain”

And you thought Sim City was fun…

September 14, 2006

Over the past few years, urban planners, architects and engineers have been exploring the use of game engines to visualize everything from individual structures to the evolution of entire cities. But with the current explosion in ubiquitous computing, such visualizations are moving away from pure simulation to embrace real-time tracking of urban components such as public transit, taxis, utlities and even individual citizens. At this year’s Venice Bienale, MIT’s SENSEable City Lab presented Real Time Rome, an incredible synthesis of these technologies that points to an urban future that will be defined by the aggregation and dynamic analysis of an ever-increasing supply of surveillance feeds:

In today’s world, wireless mobile communications devices are creating new dimensions of interconnectedness between people, places, and urban infrastructure. This ubiquitous connectivity within the urban population can be observed and interpreted in real-time, through aggregate records collected from communication networks. Real-time visualizations expose the dynamics of the contemporary city as urban systems coalesce: traces of information and communication networks, movement patterns of people and transportation systems, spatial and social usage of streets and neighborhoods. Observing the real-time city becomes a means to understanding the present and anticipating the future of urban environments. In the visualizations of Real Time Rome we synthesize data from various real-time networks to understand patterns of daily life in Rome. We interpolate the aggregate mobility of people according to their mobile phone usage and visualize it synchronously with the flux of public transit, pedestrians, and vehicular traffic. By overlaying mobility information on geographic and socio-economic references of Rome we unveil the relationships between fixed and fluid urban elements. These real-time maps help us understand how neighborhoods are used in the course of a day, how the distribution of buses and taxis correlates with densities of people, how goods and services are distributed in the city, or how different social groups, such as tourists and residents, inhabit the city. With the resulting visualizations users can interpret and react to the shifting urban environment. Real Time Rome respects individual privacy and only uses aggregate data already collected by communication service providers; also, it is hoped that the exhibit will stimulate dialogue on access and responsible use of such data. (Real Time Rome)

Mass Observation

September 12, 2006

Caleb Crain’s New Yorker article on the Mass Observation Movement, a fascinating mid-20th century hybrid of sociology, anthropology and flanerie, is well worth reading. Mass Observation sought to reveal poetic truths about life and culture by connecting the threads of individual and social history with the fabric of the everyday. The movement itself eventually became “history,” but I wonder if it really went away or just lay dormant until the web got up and running. After all, learning about our culture from “mass observations” like website traffic trackers or product recommendation systems is becoming just as much a part of the everyday as driving a car or telling a joke.

On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Anti-semitism.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.” (New Yorker)

Via the incomparable didactique.

Mini flying drones coming to a city near you

September 4, 2006

University research into things like ultra-miniturized spy planes has become a lucrative pursuit as US defense skunkworks like DARPA turn their attention toward street-level aerial surveillance.

The airflow characteristics at the low speed small planes fly at are very different to those at high speed and not very well understood, he adds. That is one reason his team is investigating novel designs.

It is difficult to quantify how manoeuvrable the new drones are. But during flight tests they have been capable of performing three continuous 360° rolls in 1 second. F-16 fighter jets can carry out one roll per second but have safeguards to prevent more than this in case the pilot passes out through g-force effects. But even without these safeguards Lind, a former NASA engineer, doubts F-16 could match his drones’ performance.

The drones are being developed for use in an urban landscape. (New Scientist)

Minneapolis surveillance mapping

August 21, 2006

Pedestrian surveilance cameras are now ubiquitous in urban centres around the world. A citizen’s group in Minneapolis has created an online, user-updated map to keep track of new cameras as they appear:

To what extent are pedestrians in downtown Minneapolis monitored on surveillance cameras? Are most of the downtown cameras owned by the city or private businesses? Is the footage from these cameras recorded or just viewed? How long are the recordings kept? Who has access to the public camera footage?

The Minneapolis Surveillance Camera Project exists to answer these questions. Working with a shoestring budget, and a lot of very dedicated volunteers were working to inventory all the security cameras that record public spaces within the downtown area. Anyone is free to help out, just report any cameras you see that aren’t on our list. (mpls-watched.org)

Mini flying drones coming to a city near you

August 5, 2006

University research into things like ultra-miniturized spy planes has become a lucrative pursuit as US defense skunkworks like DARPA turn their attention toward street-level aerial surveillance.

The airflow characteristics at the low speed small planes fly at are very different to those at high speed and not very well understood, he adds. That is one reason his team is investigating novel designs.

It is difficult to quantify how manoeuvrable the new drones are. But during flight tests they have been capable of performing three continuous 360° rolls in 1 second. F-16 fighter jets can carry out one roll per second but have safeguards to prevent more than this in case the pilot passes out through g-force effects. But even without these safeguards Lind, a former NASA engineer, doubts F-16 could match his drones’ performance.

The drones are being developed for use in an urban landscape. (New Scientist)

Paul Saffo on biometrics hacking

August 1, 2006

IFTF‘s Paul Saffo succinctly summarizes the potential risks of ubiquitous biometric ID technology:

A Japanese cryptographer has demonstrated how, with a bit of gummi bear gelatin, some cyanoacrylic glue, a digital camera and a bit of digital fiddling, he can easily capture a print off a glass and confect an artificial finger that foils fingerprint readers with an 80 percent success rate. Frightening as this is, at least the stunt is far less grisly than the tale, perhaps aprocryphal, of some South African crooks who snipped the finger off an elderly retiree, rushed her still-warm digit down to a government ATM, stuck it on the print reader and collected the victim’s pension payment. (Washington Post)