In late August, traveler Daniele Brito posed in central Dublin, in front of the famous Temple Bar. She took an Instagram photo, posted it to her account, and minded her own business. But little did she know, another camera was watching her.
Not only was Brito watched by the camera, but her Instagram photo was traced to find her on the camera footage, showing how bizarrely effective surveillance can be even in seemingly innocuous situations.
The project, called The Follower, is the brainchild of Belgian artist Dries Depoorter. Depoorter programmed an AI system that scours through open-access video footage from cameras around the world and then cross-checks the footage with Instagram photos, looking for matches. Basically, if you took an Instagram photo close to an open-access camera, there’s a good chance it can find you.
Depoorter has been working on matters related to privacy, surveillance, and AI for a few years. For instance, his website sells artistic jaywalking frames that cost as much as a fine. But this time, he had a different idea.
The idea came to him while he was looking at open camera footage (which, if you didn’t know, is something you can do with ease) and he noticed someone taking Instagram photos for 30 minutes. He wondered if he could find that person.
Depoorter collected footage and then trained an AI to scan through the footage and correlate it with influencers with over 100,000 followers. He was successful in several instances.
The difference between the carefully angled Instagram photos and the process that led to their creation (captured on the cameras) is worthy of a study in itself — but what’s more intriguing here, and what Depoorter focused on, is how easy it is for someone to find footage of people with nothing but technology and open data. This isn’t even a massive effort or any proprietary cameras, it’s just one artist, with open data and resources commonly available to plenty of people.
The artist told InputMag that he himself is uncertain what can be learned from this process, other than to draw attention to the possibilities already available to surveillance systems.
“I know which questions it raises, this kind of project,” he says. “But I don’t answer the question itself. I don’t want to put a lesson into the world. I just want to show the dangers of new technologies.”
Privacy is increasingly becoming a luxury, and ubiquitous cameras coupled with AI could basically spell its demise. Maybe, just maybe, that’s something we should start discussing as a society.