Crowdsourced Surveillance: Next Big App of Big Media

Big Data Evangelist, IBM

Boston’s recent ordeal demonstrated to everybody that civilization now has a powerful new tool for constant surveillance. Whether we use it in the cause of catching the bad guys or letting the bad guys control our lives is another question. But there’s no denying that social media, crowdsourcing, digital photography and the “Internet of Things” have eliminated any lingering illusions that we’re not being watched, or are capable of being monitored 24x7, in our public lives.

Every one of us participated in the unfolding drama, and those of us who happened to be on that tragic final stretch of the Boston Marathon didn’t realize they were photographing a crime scene till the explosion ripped through the crowd. Seemingly everybody had a camera-equipped smartphone. The nearby stores and other businesses were capturing live video through the entire event. Even some of the runners were streaming it from their bodycams.

cellphone-crowd.jpgThen, suddenly, the disaster hit, and everybody—not just the news media—were broadcasting whatever images they had. In a communal frenzy, we all started scrutinizing, correlating and commenting on every last frame, all the way up through the capture of the bleeding suspect in the backyard boat later that week. We all participated in an urgent exercise of crowdsourced forensic analysis.

This recent incident was a perfect illustration of how big media—the next evolutionary step beyond big data—is revolutionizing our world. Big media refers to a world where zettabytes of streaming digital objects of every conceivable type become the foundation of world culture.

If people and businesses have already invested in the requisite big-media applications and platforms for private surveillance, entertainment and communications, then the public authorities will always be able to count on a ready supply of fresh feeds for their purposes.

In a democratic society, crowdsourced surveillance becomes a matter of voluntary sharing of images, streams, tweets, sensor readings, speech analytics, text analytics and other intelligence into some communal “public safety” space. In fact, Silicon Angle published an excellent article on the critical roles of crowdsourcing and big data in the manhunt. In the piece, they noted that two years ago Vancouver police requested public footage of the riots that followed the Canucks’ defeat to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals. In that event, which foreshadowed the Boston Marathon tragedy, Vancouver authorities set up a channel for the public to provide riot footage anonymously, and in the process collected more than 5,000 hours of video, leading to the arrest and conviction of hundreds for over 15,000 criminal acts.

Of course, the video sharing also may be less than voluntary, such as when police use subpoenas and warrants to lay their hands on video that some reluctant private citizen has captured for their own purposes. Regardless of how it is acquired, it’s highly likely that the FBI and other law enforcement officials of the near future will process it through the most sophisticated video analytics, facial recognition and digital signal processing technologies in order to facilitate the work of their detectives. At the same time, authorities will increasingly rely on crowdsourced forensic analysis from communities of concerned individuals.

In fact, many of the cutting-edge video-analytics techniques that the military are applying to “big drone data” (per this Wired article) will almost certainly cross over into policing applications.

Civil libertarians and privacy advocates recognize that there is an ominous downside to this trend. When does the spread of crowdsourced surveillance start to create a chilling “Big Brother” effect on open society? What legal, procedural and regulatory safeguards and watchdogs must we establish to keep it all from slipping too far into police-state territory?

As a society, we need to start grappling with these issues now in a systematic way. Crowdsourced surveillance appears to be a bilg app for big media, and in one form or another it’s here to stay. It is fast on its way to becoming a standard tool of public-safety operations everywhere on the planet.