Tuesday Blog Post

The Plague-Ground – I See You. I Know You.

In Britain, the average person is seen by 70 CCTV cameras every day.

As Boris Johnson said when he was the Mayor of London: “When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star. You are being filmed by more cameras than you can possibly imagine.”

As with much of what Mr. Johnson says, this is a gross exaggeration. There are only 627,000 CCTV cameras in London. In Shanghai, there are 2.9 million of them.

China is also advancing quickly on facial recognition technology which will allow the government to identify anyone caught on their screens. As always with tech, there are huge ethical issues; some are clear right away, like misidentifying a murderer; others take longer, like deliberately creating a Big Brother society; and still others are ‘unknown unknowns’, like identifying people who are even thinking of committing a crime, as in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

This got me to thinking back to an article I read in 2016 by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. It was titled The Detectives Who Never Forget a Face, and it was about a new branch of Scotland Yard staffed by super-recognizers, people who have an extraordinary ability to recognize other people.

Today, after catching hundreds of criminals simply by recognizing who they are on CCTV cameras, it turns out super-recognizers don’t have especially superior memories, nor are they especially good at recognizing objects. It’s faces they can’t forget.

Even more important, super-recognizers are far superior to computer recognition systems in correctly identifying people. The average adult can only remember 20% of the faces we have seen, while a super-recognizer can remember 80% of the faces they’ve seen.

For those of us who could never recognize a face, or put a name to one, or whose memories are shockingly frail, i.e. “Mary, this is my old friend….uh…my great friend…I’m sorry, what’s your name?”…. we should take comfort that this is not one of those “either you are or you aren’t” conditions.

It’s like Autism, on a spectrum. At one end are people with ‘face blindness’ such as the mother who cannot recognize her baby. At the other – 1% to 2% of the population — are the people who not only recognize character actors in movies, they recognize the extras too. And as Keefe notes: “They often pretended that they were meeting for the first time –  people who they knew they’d met before. After all, if you’re introduced to someone at a party and you remind him in pointillist detail about the circumstances of a brief meeting years earlier, he might reasonably conclude that you are a stalker.”

Then last week I read a piece in Vice by a super-recognizer. Kelly Hearsey works for Super Recognizers International Ltd. in London who work with police forces across Britain on everything from murder investigations to keeping disruptive fans away from sporting events.

It seems Ms. Hearsey took a test in 2018 and “got the highest score they’d ever seen from over six million candidates.”



If you think you’ve got what it takes to be a super-recognizer, I have a test for you.

Do well on that test and you can put your natural-born talents to use.

After all, the Toronto Police Service has just 34 CCTV cameras with plans to expand to 40. The total for public and private CCTV in Toronto is fewer than 10,000 cameras.

And as Detective Chief Inspector Nick Melville, who created the Scotland Yard super-recognizers, mourned: “People don’t want to believe that humans could be better than a machine. And the sad truth in this wicked world we live in is that people don’t want to pay a human. They want to buy a machine.”

Talk about a career with potential…….

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6 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – I See You. I Know You.”

  1. Madeline Thompson

    Hi Bob – just read this one. Uhm….fabulous and frightening! I would trust super-recognizer
    over a CCTV shot any day, assuming the super-recog. was as clever and accurate as the
    the top-drawer of this new and amazing career-blazing activity suggests. Would never apply,
    faces are not bad, forget names all the time. The CCTV thing is terrifying because its algorithms
    are still faulty I understand. There are desperate stories of inaccurate CCTV ‘accusations’, so to speak.

    The Covid debacles seem to be encouraging lots of tech-stuff, tracing and all that. The virus is a real thing,
    but it has become horribly politicized. I think we can safely declare 2020 as the year of distraction, with
    the year of 2021 totally up for grabs. I think we’re at a point where every one of us has to decide what
    we think, do, and most important of all, act on, heading into a new year.

    That’s intriguing food for thought to me – what do you think? We’ve been totally battered with information
    and behavioural orders coming at us from all fronts, with perhaps fewer and fewer of us fearing the
    virus and more and more of us wondering if we will need to arm ourselves, metaphorically speaking,
    against new intrusions into our freedoms of existence.

    all the best as always – Madeline

    1. Madeline — I agree with you completely. We seem to be ruled by our distractions, made all the worse by the torrent of things that land in our computers.
      I’m also a lot more fearful about AI and video surveillance than I may have implied in my blog; tthe technology is moving frighteningly quickly to getting more accurate. You are abroad still? Cheers. Bob

  2. As a devotee of Line of Duty, I can attest to the proliferation of CCTV in the UK. How well does it work with face masks?

  3. I just got 9/14 on the Test… one point off a ‘super-recognizer’. I feel newly powerful and alive. And now I’m wondering why I’m not using these skills more actively. Hmmmm. This may help me manage (or shall I say, nurture?) my tween. Thanks Bob.

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