Device Thwarts Digital-Picture Taking

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

In a single year, 24 million digital cameras (including camera phones) are sold in the United States, and the firm Gartner Dataquest speculates that 80% of U.S. households will own a digitalpicture- taking device of some sort by 2010.

It stands to reason that more cameras will almost certainly lead to more digital pictures, and more images making their way onto the Internet, unbeknownst, perhaps, to the people in those photos. But there is hope for the camera shy. A group of researchers from Georgia Tech University recently created a device that may be able to block digital-picture taking.

The machine developed by Gregory Abowd, Jay Summet, James Clawson, and Khai Truong consists of camera-mounted sensors, a projector, and a computer. It works by targeting the special reflecting properties of the charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors that manufacturers use in digital cameras. CCDs consist of hundreds of small capacitors (energy storage devices) linked together in a series on a small chip. When light, focused through a digital camera lens, hits the sensors, it gives each of the capicitors a slightly different charge-white light creating more of a charge, darkness creating less of a charge. In this way, the CCD is able to absorb light similar to the way pointillist painter George Seurat was able to create large, recognizable images by applying paint to canvas in single points of pure color, rather than in broad swaths.

Most CCD sensors are retroflective, meaning they mirror light directly back to the image source rather than scattering it. In devices such as picture phones, the scanner is often very close to the lens where the Georgia Tech device is able to see it. Once the device detects a possible digital camera, it can alert the system operator or send a thin beam of bright light (harmless to humans) directly into the camera’s sensor, causing all the capacitors to “see” white.

“The prototype we have developed could lead to products for markets that have a small, critical area to protect,” says Abowd. In the near term, the team believes the motion picture industry might be interested in using the system to thwart movie piracy. “Movie piracy is a $3-billiona- year problem,” says Clawson.

The researchers are cautiously optimistic that their system may also help secure federal buildings from espionage or terrorist surveillance. The device may appeal to a broad consumer audience, as well. The machine is rather bulky in its present form, about the size of an electronic keyboard, but if the system could be made small enough, it could give private citizens an extra layer of protection in the era of digital snooping.

-Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2007.

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