Will AI-Powered Cameras Be Watching You in Shibuya?

Will AI-Powered Cameras Be Watching You in Shibuya?

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Shibuya AI cameras
Picture: Rise; Ryuji / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Do you always feel like someone's watching you? That may be true in Shibuya if one company's plan for 100 AI-powered cameras continues apace.

The raging debate continues over how much privacy we all have in an age of big data. A company in Japan kicked the hornet’s nest last week when it announced it was installing 100 cameras for “AI monitoring” of Tokyo’s popular Shibuya hub.

This is why we get no privacy

Picture from Intelligence Design’s Web site showing cameras located around Shibuya buildings. (Source: IDEA)

The controversy started thanks to an announcement from the company Intelligence Design, whose “Shibuya 1000 Project” aims to create “an ideal Shibuya tailored to each individual.” It proposes accomplishing this by setting 100 cameras around Shibuya and gleaning various information from the millions of people who pass through one of Tokyo’s busiest neighborhoods daily.

The system is built around Intelligence Design’s “IDEA Counter” camera. The camera sports an “Edge AI” system – i.e., its AI recognition software is embedded directly with the camera itself. There are several technical benefits to this, namely that Intelligence Design doesn’t have to spend a ton on storage space and cloud computing processing power. It can capture what information it deems worthwhile at the edge and only send that back for storage and further collation.

What data is Intelligence Design collecting?

No Title

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“John Anderson, wouldn’t you like to use your American Express points on a purchase at ShinQs?!”

Theoretically, this can also make the Counter more secure and better at complying with data regulations. If the camera doesn’t store any of its streaming data, the edge software can simply discard whatever information it doesn’t deem relevant. In other words, it can anonymize the information it gathers, replacing overly specific descriptors of an individual with a uniquely generated ID.

However, anonymizing information doesn’t necessarily obscure a person’s identity. In a 2015 paper in the journal Science, a group of data scientists showed how they could re-identify 90% of purchasers from “anonymized” credit card data. It took them only four items of data to identify an individual precisely.

Given that, Intelligence Design seems to plan on capturing a dangerous amount of information about random shoppers in Shibuya. As an example of what the company could capture, it showed a picture of a crowd of people juxtaposed with a single person identified using 100 cameras.

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Intelligence Design - Shibuya 100 cameras project

The site boasted about how a single camera could capture that someone was in Shibuya. But 100 cameras could produce all of the following information:

“40yo/male, seated companion (30yo female), wearing Brand A, arrived in Shibuya at 12pm on a non-work day from the Ginza Line, ate lunch at Hikarie [shopping center attached to Shibuya Station], went down Meiji Avenue, moved slowly towards Miyashita Park (likely shopping), 3rd time here this month (last time was a non-work day, X-day), 10th time in Shibuya this year, been to Hikarie Y times, last time bought items in stores A and B…”

In other words, Intelligence Design seemed to be saying, we know exactly who you are.

A swift social media backlash

AI-powered cameras in Shibuya - facial recognition
Picture: takeuchi masato / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

On social media platforms like X (formerly Twitter), users immediately criticized Intelligence Design’s scheme. Some of the comments included:

“It’s super scary”

“They’re continuously tracking us God knows where, and without us noticing”

“There isn’t enough transparency about where they’re protecting this personal information”

Intelligence Design responded by saying, Hey, relax bro – we’re all good! The company insisted that its plans don’t amount to capturing “personal information” as per Japan’s Personal Information Protection Law (個人情報保護法; kojin jouhou hogo-hou). It also insists it’s not storing any images containing personal data – read: your face – in any of its systems.

Cameras for a Halloween crackdown?

Halloween in Shibuya

The “Shibuya 100 Camera Project” supposedly has two goals. One is the obvious marketing goal you read above. Intelligence Design will possess a ton of data about Shibuya shoppers. It can then mine that data and sell the results on consumer behavior to eager merchants operating, not just in Shibuya, but potentially all of Japan.

Since “the company that reduces you to data and sells you to the highest bidder” isn’t an inspiring slogan, Intelligence Design is also touting its potential role in public safety. The idea is to use the system to help with crowd control during events such as Shibuya’s annual and oh-so-unofficial Halloween bash.

After the backlash, Intelligence Design scrubbed their site to make it feel less Minority Report-ish. Buzzfeed Japan captured the changes using the Internet Archive. Gone is the scary graphic of the guy who they seemed to identify down to his brand of shoelaces. In its place are tables disclosing the exact data that the company captures.

Based on social media feedback, the changes did little to ease people’s troubled minds. But there doesn’t seem any way to stop the company from carrying through on its plans, either.

The company says it’s been installing cameras since July 2023. So, next time you’re in Shibuya, look up and give a little wave. Chances are that Intelligence Design is up there somewhere, tracking your every move.

How Did Shibuya and Shinjuku Stations Become So Hard to Navigate?

Sources

「どんな服で、どんな人と、今年何回目…」渋谷にAIカメラ100台設置プロジェクト、サイトの記載を削除「個人情報には該当しない」. Buzzfeed JP

【比較画像】「渋谷100台プロジェクト」修正前と修正後のサイトを見比べる. Buzzfeed JP

With a Few Bits of Data, Researchers Identify ‘Anonymous’ People. New York Times

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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