[FoRK] Army Tracking Plan: Drones That Never Forget a Face

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Sep 29 04:09:13 PDT 2011


Army Tracking Plan: Drones That Never Forget a Face

By Noah Shachtman September 28, 2011  | 6:30 am  | Categories: Drones

Perhaps the idea of spy drones already makes your nervous. Maybe you’re
uncomfortable with the notion of an unblinking, robotic eye in the sky that
can watch your every move. If so, you may want to click away now. Because if
the Army has its way, drones won’t just be able to look at what you do.
They’ll be able to recognize your face — and track you, based on how you
look. If the military machines assemble enough information, they might just
be able to peer into your heart.

The Pentagon has tried all sort of tricks to keep tabs on its foes as they
move around: tiny transmitters, lingering scents, even “human thermal
fingerprints.” The military calls the effort “Tagging, Tracking, and
Locating,” or “TTL.” And, as the strategy in places like Afghanistan has
shifted from rebuilding societies to taking out individual insurgents, TTL
has become increasingly central to the American effort. Hundreds of millions
of dollars have been devoted to it.

The current technologies have their limits, however. Transmitters can be
discovered, and discarded. Scents eventually waft away. Even the tagged can
get lost in a crowd.

But there are some things that can’t be so easily discarded. Like the shape
of your face. Or the feelings you keep inside. That’s why the Army just
handed out a half-dozen contracts to firms to find faces from above, track
targets, and even spot “adversarial intent.”

“If this works out, we’ll have the ability to track people persistently
across wide areas,” says Tim Faltemier, the lead biometrics researcher at
Progeny Systems Corporation, which recently won one of the Army contracts. “A
guy can go under a bridge or inside a house. But when he comes out, we’ll
know it was the same guy that went in.”

Progeny just started work on their drone-mounted, “Long Range,
Non-cooperative, Biometric Tagging, Tracking and Location” system.

The company is one several firms that has developed algorithms for the
military that use two-dimensional images to construct a 3D model of a face.
It’s not an easy trick to pull off — even with the proper lighting, and even
with a willing subject. Building a model of someone on the run is harder.
Constructing a model using the bobbing, weaving, flying, relatively
low-resolution cameras on small unmanned aerial vehicles is tougher still.

But it could be of enormous military value. “This overcomes a basic
limitation in current TTL operations where … objects of interest only
appea[r] periodically from sheltered positions or crowds,” the Army noted in
its announcement of the project.

That’s what Progeny claims it can do: take an existing drone, like the
hand-held Raven, and turn it into a TTL machine. “Any pose, any expression,
any lighting,” Faltemier says. Progeny needs an image with just 50 pixels
between the target’s eyes to build a 3D model of his face. That’s about the
same as what it takes to traditionally capture a 2D image. (Naturally, the
model gets better and better the more pictures are taken during enrollment.)
Once the target is “enrolled” in Progeny’s system, it might only take 15 or
20 pixels to identify him again. A glance or two at a Raven’s camera might
conceivably be enough.

And if the system can’t get a good enough look at a target’s face, Progeny
has other ways of IDing its prey. The key, developed under a previous Navy
contract, is a kind of digital stereotyping. Using a series of so-called
“soft biometrics” — everything from age to gender to “ethnicity” to “skin
color” to height and weight — the system can keep track of targets “at ranges
that are impossible to do with facial recognition,” Faltemier says. Like 750
feet away or more.

But if Progeny can get close enough, Faltemier says his technology can even
tell identical twins apart. With backing by the Army, researchers from Notre
Dame and Michigan State Universities collected images of faces at a “Twins
Days” festival. Progeny then zeroed in on the twins’ scars, marks, and
tattoos — and were able to spot one from the other. The company says the
software can help the military “not only learn the identity of subjects but
also their associations in social groups.”

The Pentagon isn’t content to simply watch the enemies it knows it has,
however. The Army also wants to identify potentially hostile behavior and
intent, in order to uncover clandestine foes.

Charles River Analytics is using its Army cash to build a so-called
“Adversary Behavior Acquisition, Collection, Understanding, and Summarization
(ABACUS)” tool. The system would integrate data from informants’ tips, drone
footage, and captured phone calls. Then it would apply “a human behavior
modeling and simulation engine” that would spit out “intent-based threat
assessments of individuals and groups.” In other words: This software could
potentially find out which people are most likely to harbor ill will toward
the U.S. military or its objectives. Feeling nervous yet?

“The enemy goes to great lengths to hide his activities,” explains Modus
Operandi, Inc., which won an Army contract to assemble “probabilistic
algorithms th[at] determine the likelihood of adversarial intent.” The
company calls its system “Clear Heart.” As in, the contents of your heart are
now open for the Pentagon to see. It may be the most unnerving detail in this
whole unnerving story.

Illos: courtesy of Progeny Systems Corporation

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