How well people keep social distancing? Street cameras will tell

Ruth C. | April 14, 2020

As social distancing became standard across the globe, countries continue to bring surveillance technology to track the pandemic. Governments already rely on netizens’ location data to track the spread of the virus. Yet, the effectiveness is severely limited and also raises privacy concerns. Now, new algorithms use live cameras in several cities to track the movement of citizens. All this, to calculate how well they keep a social distance.

A tool to count if you are 6 feet apart

A University of Michigan startup, Voxel51, introduced its new tool to help track social distancing behaviors around the world in real-time. The system uses camera footage and computer vision models to monitor pedestrian, cyclist, and vehicle traffic in some of the hardest-hit cities. As of now, the cameras are in the world's busiest streets, like New York's Times Square, Fremont Street in Las Vegas, or Abbey Road in London. However, Voxel51 will continue integrating live street cams from additional cities around the world.

Every 15 minutes, the Voxel51 system indicates a Public Distancing Index (PDI) - an average measure of density in an area. A computer detects pedestrians, bicycles, or cars, and measures the amount of human activity in an image. The chart represents the PDI scores in every time-stamped data point along with other relevant Covid-19 information. For instance, news headlines from the day, policies in the area such as school closures, or stay-at-home orders. Also, you can modify the chart to show the number of cases in a certain area. By this, you can compare the rate to the PDI.

New York Distancing Index

Jason Corso, the founder of Voxel51, told Motherboard that the project is non-invasive in regards to citizens' privacy. The PDI tool does not extract any identifiable information about the individuals, nor use other data sources, such as mobile phone signals. According to Corso, they aggregate the data in a statistical measure only. Voxel51 pulls all of the closed-circuit television cameras from Youtube and Earthcam, which means they were already publicly accessible before. Also, the tool includes state-of-the-art redaction capabilities, which contain blurring faces and images on the footage. Plus, it runs on a superior security cloud vendor with a certificate of internationally recognized standard - ISO/IEC 27001. Hence, Corso and his team are not worried about someone breaking into it.

Privacy experts disagree

Voxel51 could be a handy tool for health agencies to measure how distancing correlates with new virus cases. Also, the data might be helpful for residents to identify the traffic in an area whether it's wise to visit it.

Still, privacy experts raise the concern if governments will demolish the measures once they're no longer needed. Tools that use surveillance in an emergency could lead to becoming a new norm once the danger is over. No doubt, tracking measures impose restrictions on people's freedoms, including their privacy and other civil rights. Indeed, using unidentifiable CCTV data is more appropriate for the privacy point of view. It is more respectful than gaining access to netizens' location data and knowing their whereabouts. Nevertheless, the abnormal levels of monitoring could change how we move through the world when the crisis is over.

Ruth C.

Ruth C.

Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN. Interested in cybercrime, online security, and privacy-related topics.



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