A central Israeli city announced it is forming a partnership with an artificial intelligence firm with the goal of setting up an automatic enforcement system for the city.
Netanya, a coastal city located to the north of Tel Aviv, announced its intention of working with a firm called Incontrol and acquiring their artificial intelligence system. The AI system has computer vision capabilities which would analyze images of passersby in parks and other open areas, as well as deciphering aerial photos, all for the sake of enforcing the city’s bylaws and keeping the streets clean.
The announcement of the plans were made as part of the local municipality’s desire to skip the official tender process. According to what’s been published, the system the city is interested in will identify people who don’t collect their dogs’ droppings, based on a database consisting of dog photos, as well as identifying people entering city parks after closing times, the license plate numbers of motorcycles driving wildly, electric bicycles riding on sidewalks and gatherings in public spaces. The system will also spot changes in structures across the city, based on aerial photography, with the hopes of finding illegal construction.
The city’s plan to systematically collect data on people walking down the street and share it with a private business is already evoking criticism among jurists and people involved with technology. “A public body has a duty to act within reason, in a reasonable and justifiable manner. One may ask whether it is reasonable to photograph and follow members of the public at all times in order to ensure that you pick up after your dog or that you don’t enter a park after hours,” says Dr. Omri Rachum-Twaig, a cyber and IT partner at the Fischer-Behar (FBC) law firm and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University.
The dispute isn’t only about the invasion of privacy, since many public spaces are under surveillance already. The real issue is the decision to use an AI system which may be biased and whose rationale may not always be discernible.
“Public spaces must operate equitably, something we know that AI algorithms have difficulty ensuring,” adds Rachum-Twaig. “Such a system has to exercise autonomous decision making, and a decision needs to be made if this is legitimate. What oversight is there over the decisions reached by artificial intelligence systems; how and on the basis of what information was the system trained, and what happens in the case of mistaken identity?”
Rachum-Twaig notes that there have been court appeals against automated tickets given on the basis of automatic speeding cameras, with some questioning whether they were reliable. But operating a speedometer and identifying a number on a license plate are considered a much simpler task than deciding whether it was one person or another who was supposed to pick up after this or that dog.
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Above all, he notes, there is also a formal legal question of whether a municipality has the authority to carry out such surveillance in the absence of a specific law permitting this, especially when it relies on a private company for doing so. “In Tel Aviv, for example, courts would revoke fines given for parking violations that were based on photos until municipal bylaws were prescribed, giving the city specific permission to use this method.”
People in the tech world have doubts regarding the system’s ability to carry out the tasks it is charged with by the city. “If you look at the cost-benefit aspects, it’s cheaper to employ another 100 inspectors who can walk around the city, compared to developing such a system,” says Uri Eliabayev, an AI consultant (Eliabayev also writes for Haaretz).
“I’m not at all sure that this is feasible and under what conditions it would be effective. Building a model that can identify specific dogs and through them locate their owners is not a simple proposition. Artificial intelligence can distinguish between dog breeds, not between individual dogs. A year ago, I saw a demonstration by a security company that had raised tens of millions of dollars for demonstrating such capabilities with people, and it was very impressive,” he says.
“But doing this in order to verify that you didn’t collect droppings?” continues Elibayev. “This is the most specific problem in the world. We’d need to collect data, single out dogs that crouch in order to defecate so that we can later identify that no one picked up afterwards? It probably won’t work when it rains. Who needs this? It’s a terrible waste of public funds. Incidentally, it’s doubtful whether the surveillance cameras currently in use will be up to the task. There are already some precedents for tracking gatherings of people and people entering parks after hours, without identifying individual people, only to alert a call center and summon an inspector or policeman. That’s not easy either, but it’s possible,” he says.
Haaretz sent a number of questions to the Netanya municipality: what gave the city legal authority to use cameras in order to carry out these enforcement operations; was this approved by the city’s legal adviser, with a written brief provided? Was there a survey of the project’s impact on privacy before it was planned? We also inquired how the provider was chosen, and whether surveys regarding privacy and data protection were conducted in order to determine how the data would be used by the provider? What data would be transferred from city hall to the provider, and why was this necessary; were other enforcement alternatives considered, ones not involving photos and systematic surveillance, and who would take responsibility for system errors?
Finally, we asked the city for details about Incontrol, such as the company’s website, its identification number or ways of contacting it, since the company could not be found. A company by that name was found as delisted at the registrar of companies.
The Netanya municipality refused to provide further means of identification that would help in understanding which company the city intended to work with, saying: “We would emphasize that no connection has been made with the company. According to the law, when a local authority wishes to engage a company without a bidding process, it has to publish a call in which it notes the name of the provider it considers as the sole provider. If there are other companies they can contact us, and then we will start a bidding process.”
UPDATE: After a Hebrew version of this article was published, the municipality provided us with Incontrol's website and tax ID number. Upon further research, it was found that their domain was purchased only in August, and the company officially registered on the day of this article's Hebrew publication.
In a brief demonstration provided by them for Haaretz together with an expert in the field of artificial intelligence, the entrepreneur behind the firm showed only basic capabilities, and no evidence was seen that indicates that the system is capable of distinguishing between dogs.
In our conversation with Netanya municipality officials, we were told that: "it seems the municipality rushed ahead with the announcement, but it did not intend to have a contract with the company before making sure it had a working system. Anyhow, since the publication, other startups have submitted bids and we will have to conduct a public tender.”