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Seeing people faces from high above

A 192 Gpixels photo of Shanghai from above

It is now a few months since the image of Shanghai taken at a resolution of 195 Gpixels (yes, it is Giga Pixels, you got it right) has appeared on the web. You can get a feeling of what it means by watching the video clip. Even better, go to the BigPixel website look around, and zoom in, to see the incredible level of detail that a 195Gpixel image contains.

The giga-photo (it left the mega-photos in the dust!) is the result of stitching together thousands of Mpixels photos taken in 2015 from the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower using a 600 mm tele. The “stitching” is no easy feat: it took BigPixel two months of work to have the result you can see. A side observation: this is a very strange photo, having something in common with a photo of a starry night. Those individual photos that have been stitched together were shot at different times, so when you are looking at the giga-photo time gets distorted. People you are seeing in the photo are not just in different places but also in different times, like the stars we are seeing in the sky. Each one seems to be there with all the others but as a matter of fact each one of them is been shown at a different time, even some million years apart (there are also stars being there and separated by billion of years but we cannot see them with our naked eye).

The reason I am posting such as “old” news is that now, in 2019, some people are starting to pay attention to this giga-photo and noticed that at this level of detail you can see the faces of people moving around in Shanghai and look at them without they being aware of their image having been captured.

Now, obviously you can notice that it does not take a giga-pixel photo to have some people recorded on an image without being aware of that.  It happens in this very moment you are reading this sentence, actually it is happening a thousands fold. Just think that there are over 30,000 photos taken every single second and you can easily imagine how many people can end up on those photos without being aware of that. For the record every second over 1,000 photos are uploaded on Instagram and over 460,000 photos are shared!.

The problem is that technology is rapidly progressing and artificial intelligent software can detect faces and spot identity. Like you upload a photo of your friend and a software can search billions of images to find other instances of your friend. This is possible today, although on a limited scale.

Try to find images with yourself on Google image search…I tried with one of my photos and Google found a number of them although it looked for a perfect match not for a person (I should say I was shocked  by the response of Google suggesting that a related search could be “elder”!!!  I hate Google). There are other websites, like PimEyes, that support the searching of faces and I am pretty sure there will be more in the future and they will become more and more comprehensive and accurate.

The issue that is emerging on the giga-photo is that there is a potential for a Government to take, systematically, photos of all areas and track people. With all safety cameras around I am pretty sure that we need not have to wait for giga-photos to be concerned. It is probably already happening today. Personally, I tend to trust Governments (may be I shouldn’t) and I want to believe that this is actually enhancing safety. I can, however, appreciate the concern on privacy and the risk associated to having all there digital records of ourselves in the open, letting third parties tracking us.

Could an app be developed to provide a message to a home burglar that all people living in an apartment have left? I guess it is within the realm of technical possibilities… Will private-eyes be placed out of business because services will become available to trace the whereabout of a person? Sure, it shouldn’t be that difficult…

Yes, I realise there is some reasons to be concerned, and it is not because of giga-photos…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.