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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There are millions of surveillance cameras in the U.S., but not nearly enough eyes to watch them all. When you pass one on the street, you can rightly expect your actions to go unnoticed in the moment; footage is instead archived for review if something goes wrong.

What's happening: Now, AI software can flag behavior it deems suspicious in real-time surveillance feeds, or pinpoint minute events in past footage — as if each feed were being watched unblinkingly by its own hyper-attentive security guard. The new technology, if it spreads in the U.S., could put an American twist on Orwellian surveillance systems abroad.

Big picture: In a new report today, ACLU surveillance expert Jay Stanley describes a coming mass awakening of millions of cameras, powered by anodyne-sounding "video analytics."

Collecting data has become dirt cheap, but attention has remained a scarce, expensive resource — especially for analyzing video, Stanley says. That's what is changing.

  • "The danger is that video analytics would be used to make sure that if you do anything, it will never be missed," Stanley tells Axios. That would be a significant departure from today's largely unmonitored cameras.
  • "We're right on the cusp of this technology really becoming real."

Quick take: This new software democratizes high-powered surveillance — once the purview of wealthy governments and organizations. Companies are selling it effectively as "surveillance in a box" for far cheaper than hiring video analysts.

Police, retailers, railroads and even carmakers are installing various shades of this software. And we've written about its use in schools.

  • The full extent of its deployment, or even how well the technology lives up to its marketing promises, isn't entirely clear.
  • What's certain is that there's demand for it. Analysts predict that the video analytics market, which was worth $3.23 billion in 2018, will grow to $8.55 billion in 2023.

How it works: The software is marketed as being able to:

  • Detect specific events like people hugging, smoking, fighting or drinking, or instead automatically detect "anomalies" — deviations from the usual goings-on in a certain feed, like a car driving the wrong way or a person loitering at an odd hour.
  • Search historical footage by clothing or even skin color and "summarize" countless hours of footage into a single image or a short clip.
  • Determine a person's emotional state or even make assumptions about their personality, based only on their face and body movements.

The danger: Losing anonymity in public can change the way people behave, experts say, much like China's omnipresent surveillance can cause residents to constantly look over their shoulders.

  • "People will start to wonder if they'll be cataloged or monitored if they're at a protest or political event, and potentially be subject to retribution," says Jake Laperruque, a privacy expert at the Project on Government Oversight.
  • And in the case of emotion detection, significant decisions — like whether or not you get a job — can hang on the software's interpretation of your facial expressions, says Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of NYU's AI Now Institute.

Go deeper

51 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Stalemate over filibuster freezes Congress

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell's inability to quickly strike a deal on a power-sharing agreement in the new 50-50 Congress is slowing down everything from the confirmation of President Biden's nominees to Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Why it matters: Whatever final stance Schumer takes on the stalemate, which largely comes down to Democrats wanting to use the legislative filibuster as leverage over Republicans, will be a signal of the level of hardball we should expect Democrats to play with Republicans in the new Senate.

Dave Lawler, author of World
1 hour ago - World

Biden opts for five-year extension of New START nuclear treaty with Russia

Putin at a military parade. Photo: Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via Getty

President Biden will seek a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact with Russia before it expires on Feb. 5, senior officials told the Washington Post.

Why it matters: The 2010 treaty is the last remaining constraint on the arsenals of the world's two nuclear superpowers, limiting the number of deployed nuclear warheads and the bombers, missiles and submarines which can deliver them.

Updated 2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook refers Trump ban to independent Oversight Board for review

Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook's independent Oversight Board has accepted a referral from the platform to review its decision to indefinitely suspend former President Trump.

Why it matters: While Trump critics largely praised the company's decision to remove the then-president's account for potential incitement of violence, many world leaders and free speech advocates pushed back on the decision, arguing it sets a dangerous precedent for free speech moving forward.