Sunday, October 10, 2010


Tech idea; Crowdsourcing security with streaming store videos

by Larry Geller

Britain is known for its surveillance culture. It’s impossible to go far in London without some camera looking down at you. They read faces, license plates, and keep computer records.  America may be headed in the same direction, but the extent of the surveillance Brits are willing to tolerate confounds many freedom-loving Americans.

Out of that culture has come an idea that may have broad application. Let me say that I am definitely of two minds on this, but let’s plow ahead anyway.

The technology was the subject of a feature on On The Media, which aired on Hawaii Public Radio on Friday

The spot described Internet Eyes, which works basically like this (snipped from their web page):

Shoplifting is at its highest recorded levels, £4.88 billion a year according to the Centre for Retail Research. Internet Eyes has been designed to combat this rise by detecting these crimes as they happen.

Internet Eyes is an online instant event notification system allowing our registered Viewers to monitor live CCTV feed from our Business Customers, and notify them the instant a crime is observed.

So viewers sit at home earn a small fee for monitoring video that streams out of several store cameras. If they report a shoplifter and so prevent a crime, they can earn £1000. That’s a great incentive to spend some time watching a boring video instead of some boring TV sitcom. If one viewer is not paying attention at a particular moment, chances are that another will be, given a critical mass of viewers.

It ought to work.

CCTV surveillance of stores, parking garages, computer centers and so forth has been around for ages. Mostly it is useful in documenting an event that has already taken place. For example, when my car was stolen, it was faithfully recorded on disk by a video camera. But the car was stolen anyway.

This is because it is nearly impossible for a human being to stare at an array of dozens of CCTV images moving around on a monitor and stay focused on the task. It’s also usual that the surveillance is poorly arranged in the first place. For example, the poor human trapped in front of that screen will zone out quickly. Or often they have other security responsibilities, and so a decoy can go to the window and engage the guard for a few moments in conversation while an accomplice makes off with the vehicle. Piece of cake.

Internet Eyes solves many of the problems, and at low cost, it appears. A video stream can be watched by dozens or hundreds of people without much incremental expense. If at least one of them can alert a store to shoplifting taking place in real time, the crime could be stopped. It could also demonstrate that security is effective at that particular store, so thieves better pick a different venue if they don’t want to be quickly nabbed.

I’m impressed with the simplicity of the concept. Perhaps an iPhone with an unlimited data plan could be a shopkeeper’s CCTV without much more investment. Yes, there could be an app for this.

Certainly there are privacy considerations. Consider, though, that a store is private property. If they want to have a large number of people helping them watch the video cameras that they probably would have installed anyway, why not?

Afterthought: Immediately after posting this I realized that it’s probably just a question of time before someone thinks of locating the viewers in Hawaii, India, Asia, Costa Rica or another place where the rewards could be lower… perhaps such services already exist.  If not, why not? Anybody know how to set up overseas call centers? (No, these are not the kinds of jobs that stay in the US or the UK for long.) Surely, we have the technical expertise here to license or replicate the UK idea if it makes sense.


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