Placemeter monitors streets from apartment windows: time to don a mask?

Placemeter monitors street views from apartment windows: time to don a mask?

Placemeter logoGot a nice street view out the window of your New York City apartment?

“Nice” as in, a view that overlooks stores, restaurants, bars, or shops, with a window you could suction-cup an old smartphone onto and use it to surveil anybody passing by?

That’s what Placemeter wants you to do, and it’s offering cash – up to $50/month – as long as you keep your phone attached to that window and its Placemeter app running.

This video shows how the company will use the real-time data to collect and deliver information such as how crowded a place is, how long the wait is, and whether it will get more or less crowded in the next hour:

  Placemeter Algorithms Output from Placemeter on Vimeo.

The company’s algorithm counts the number of people entering shops and monitors traffic levels to output aggregated and anonymised data that it then sells to local businesses, urban planners and advertisers so that they can get a more accurate measurement of activity within the city – good for, say, planning where to put a playground, Placemeter suggests.

Florent Peyre, the co-founder of Placemeter, told the Guardian that the company’s counting and measuring tool is one aspect of endowing computers with the ability to recognise objects in live video feed:

For example, this type of shape or group of pixels is most likely to be a pedestrian or a car or a bus.

It’s almost like giving the gift of sight to a computer, he said, which should scare the bejesus out of the privacy-minded.

But wait, Peyre said, it’s not that NSA-ishly freaky, given that “no one is really watching the video to classify objects.”

Placemeter says it neither stores the video feed it receives, nor does its analysis include facial recognition.

Some other things it promises never to do:

  • Share users’ personal information with anyone
  • Record anything inside participants’ homes
  • Identify anyone with its algorithms

What it does do, according to its privacy policy:

  • Protect your video feed with industry-strength encryption
  • Conduct regular audits of its privacy policies and practices

Should we worry about the massive amounts of video feed and data that a private company is collecting? Or that Placemeter might some day decide to add facial recognition to the mix?

As it is, there is already vast amounts of such data being captured by public outfits.

The National Security Agency (NSA), for example, has been scouring the web, collecting millions of images and storing them in a database that can be mined by facial recognition software to identify suspects for targeted surveillance.

In fact, since the program began in 2010, the NSA’s software has evolved to the point that it can identify faces even when targets are wearing different hair styles or sporting facial hair.

Police in Dubai recently added facial recognition to Google Glass to connect a Glass wearer to a database of wanted people.

But at least when law enforcement or spy agencies hoard data, they’re more or less accountable to laws stipulating how data can be stored and used.

Not so with a private company such as Placemeter, one expert told The Guardian.

The news outlet quotes Ryan Kalember, chief product officer of WatchDox:

This is different from CCTV in London because at least law enforcement who have access to it are operating under a series of restrictions to prevent it from being abused. [In the case of Placemeter] both hackers and malicious insiders who gain access to the footage could use it to compromise the privacy of all sorts of people they wanted to stalk or surveil in the physical world.

In addition to those concerns is the fact that even though Placemeter has a respectable privacy policy in place now, there’s nothing to stop it from rewriting its terms in the future, whether by an acquiring company or by the original team.

Should we worry?

Those of us who don’t live in NYC might get a chance to experience Placemeter in our neighborhoods and judge for ourselves in time, given that it says it’s expanding to other cities soon.