The Department of Defense believes intelligent DIVAs can fight terrorism.
This isn't about overpaid celebrities with high heels and machine guns. You can watch for those divas on The Jerry Springer Show.
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These distributed digital video arrays, or DIVAs, are collections of really smart cameras able to detect and identify an individual in a crowded train station and track him wherever he goes -- out of the station, into the parking lot, onto the freeway and so on.
They also notify authorities when they "think" the individual engages in suspicious activity or meets with questionable cohorts.
You can watch for these DIVAs in summer 2004.
The Department of Defense awarded $600,000 to University of California at San Diego's Computer Vision and Robotics Research lab Friday for further development of DIVAs, cameras that see, think and communicate.
Granted through a federal counterterrorism interagency task force called the Technical Support Working Group, the funding is slated to help CVRR redirect these intelligent camera systems from their initial intent, which was preventing traffic delays, to stopping terrorism.
For the past four years, CVRR's DIVAs assessed traffic patterns, located accidents and notified firefighters of emergencies, according to Mohan Trivedi, director of the DIVA project and professor at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering. This year, the DIVA technology provided extra security at the Super Bowl, both around the stadium and in San Diego’s Gaslamp district.
"The local police wanted to make sure the crowds weren’t unmanageably large and rowdy," Trivedi said. "Our integrated system (analyzed) crowd sizes, not individual people. If the number of people exceeded a certain limit, notification would be sent to authorities."
Trivedi's research and development focus is shifting from crowd control to what he calls "personal security" for important locations.
"Instead of having guards for 24 hours consistently," Trivedi said, "we have the DIVA architecture that can immediately detect and provide hi-res video of certain events."
Even with the advent of the Department of Homeland Security and orange security alerts, round-the-clock guards have never been feasible for every national landmark or "important location." But cameras, installed and mobile, just may be.
On a sunlit pier, moonlit corner or crowded sidewalk, or in a deserted back alley, DIVA systems can observe an individual or group, anticipate behavior and trigger complex chains of camera-to-camera communication if the system determines that someone looks, moves or behaves in a certain way.
The capability to identify a man automatically based on his facial structure, or to locate a woman digitally based on her distinctive gait is not what makes DIVA special. The Department of Defense has been contracting with developers of those technologies for years.
What's unique is the DIVA systems' ability to communicate with each other automatically and intelligently in order to better detect and then follow individuals, according to Trivedi.
"Face-recognition systems being developed by other groups are not foolproof," said Trivedi. "Sometimes they identify a person as X and they are not." Trivedi's DIVA architecture improves upon identification technologies by adding the elements of wide-area surveillance and the ability to adapt to dynamic events, so a person is not tracked solely on digital facial recognition.
To explain how DIVA surveillance works, Mohan described what he calls "interesting events." An interesting event might, for instance, be two massive objects colliding, stopping and then one of the objects speeding away earlier than the system considers normal.
Upon observing this scenario, the DIVA system might report a possible hit-and-run to the police as it alerts other cameras that it predicts the runaway vehicle might pass. Those cameras in turn anticipate the car's path and continue notifying cameras in various locations to detect, identify and track the vehicle until authorities stop it.
"The biggest challenge we have is defining what is 'an interesting event,'" said Trivedi, who confirmed that the Department of Defense would assist in identifying visual cues and circumstances to trigger the intelligent cameras from casual observation to active surveillance.
The watchful eyes of all those cameras have raised the eyebrows of privacy advocates.
"We see something we warned about called 'mission creep,'" said Mihir Kshirsagar, policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"You have cameras that are supposed to be monitoring traffic and red lights," Kshirsagar said. "And now they say, 'Let's look at the people and crowds.'"
"Take the analogy of wiretapping … there must be an audit trail, procedures and rules for how you collect and use that information," said Kshirsagar, who said such laws do not exist for capturing video images of individuals.
The only trail Trivedi is concerned with, however, is the one his cameras must learn to predict and follow. Since Friday's research grant announcement, he has added more researchers and developers to his team in order to build a powerful indoor/outdoor camera system.
"Not just for lampposts, but mobile," Trivedi said.
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More stories written by Kari L. Dean