Welcome to Transylvania – Canada

Canada on way to brave new world of surveillance

OTTAWA — Emil Petriu is in full oratorical flight, defending his controversial research in a Transylvanian accent that lapses in and out of penetrability.

By The Vancouver SunFebruary 19, 2008

OTTAWA — Emil Petriu is in full oratorical flight, defending his controversial research in a Transylvanian accent that lapses in and out of penetrability.

“I’m crazy. I’m paranoid,” Petriu smilingly tells a visitor to his office in the University of Ottawa’s School of Information Technology and Engineering.

He’s not really, of course.

At 60, he’s a pioneer in the development of wireless sensor-based “information appliances,” such as intelligent homes and cars, and worked on tactile sensors for the space station program.

Since arriving from his native Romania in 1985, he has taught at the University of Ottawa where, in 2004, he was named a university research chair. Now, he’s on the cutting edge of an emerging brave new world.

Last week, a team he heads received $2 million from Ontario to develop and commercialize new surveillance technologies for such public spaces as airports, school campuses and shopping malls.

Within five years, Petriu expects to be able to provide software for a smart system that will, in real time, analyze data from a range of sensors and monitoring devices — including video, audio, infrared, biological and radiation — to help police zero in on people bent on doing harm.

Petriu dismisses the privacy and civil liberties concerns his research raises. “Unfortunately, too much unchecked liberty is abused by other persons,” he says.

When it comes to protecting civil liberties, Petriu has more faith in machines than humans. “A machine has no race, no colour, no bias — only the biases that you put there, but you can correct them,” he says.

But David Lyon, a Queen’s University sociologist and surveillance expert, says using technology to discern the intentions of people walking through airports and malls in order to pre-empt future acts raises serious issues.

“This is high-risk stuff from a civil liberties point of view,” he says.

Petriu responds we’re already heavily monitored in public spaces by cameras and other sensors that provide information to police and security officials.

But there aren’t nearly enough humans to evaluate, let alone act upon, the reams of information that come streaming in. As a result, says Petriu, police “can’t take, in real time, pre-emptive action.”

The system he and his colleagues, including seven from the University of Ottawa, are developing aims to change that.

Using state-of-the-art technology that can interpret facial expressions and hand gestures and even put them in their proper cultural context, the program will identify suspicious behaviours and alert authorities.

He believes his system would have helped police respond more appropriately to Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died after being Tasered by police at the Vancouver airport last October.

“If they had seen how much he’d been through, that he arrived eight hours ago, that he’s lost, they would not have Tasered him,” he says.

A system like his could eliminate the need for random searches at airports and spare innocent travellers like Petriu “dumb questions by a bored young guy who doesn’t understand my English, doesn’t understand culture and other things.”

© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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