A few days before the conversation took place with Simon Randall, founder of Pimloc, an item appeared in a UK newspaper which perfectly illustrated the issue that the company is seeking to address.
In the past, security cameras were expensive, bulky pieces of equipment, costly to install and to monitor. Footage was grainy and recorded on videotape which was often recycled and taped over after a few days. The tapes and monitors were watched over by trained security staff and kept under lock and key. Nowadays, technology has moved on, and cameras are cheap enough to become almost ubiquitous- bodycams, dashboard cams, cameras in schools and even, as in the case reported above, in private homes. Today’s cameras are also generating high quality imagery which is easily accessible remotely and is being stored potentially for all eternity, somewhere on the cloud.
More and more people are also expecting there to be footage somewhere of almost every human action, interaction or activity. Our first instinct these days when anything untoward happens is to ask to see the footage. It is just assumed that somehow, somewhere, the incident would have been caught on film and can be pulled and pored over in a trice. Professionals in a wide variety of fields, such as town planning, facilities management, management consulting and marketing, are also increasingly alive to the value of such visual data in informing their work: film footage of production lines or throughput, or of human traffic through a shopping centre or a railway station, can be analysed to identify patterns and optimise processes and layout.
The implications for individuals’ privacy are huge. In any one day, there is the potential for each and every one of us to be captured on film multiple times. Given where we are today in terms of facial recognition technology and data analysis capability, this in turn has the potential to generate a huge amount of data on our movements, preferences, habits and lifestyle. This information can be useful and valuable, but also dangerous in the wrong hands.
Most countries have now, or are in the process of, adopting stringent privacy legislation which is placing the onus on operators of cameras to protect the privacy of any individuals who may be captured on film by their cameras especially inadvertently. Many operators are only just waking up to the potential implications. Anyone who operates cameras that are sited either in public or semi-public places, or even those on private land which can inadvertently record members of the general public, has a statutory responsibility to ensure that the rights and identities of those individuals are protected and the footage is protected from falling into the wrong hands.
That is easier said than done, and this is where Simon Randall and Pimloc, the company he co-founded, comes in. Randall, an expert in video imaging, had spent 12 years at Nokia before being headhunted to run a company based in Oxford that developed the first intelligent wearable camera. As he recalls, the camera was great to have if you wanted to go to Glastonbury and film yourself in the moment. It also appealed to hobbyists like magicians or potters also wanted to film themselves in action and then review the footage to study their technique. However, Randall soon realised that this came with a big downside: hours and hours of raw footage that would take days if not weeks to edit.
Then it dawned on him. “I realised that what the world needed was not another wearable camera but a software system that can filter huge volumes of images quickly.”
At the time, he was still thinking primarily of the end-consumer. Together with co-founder James Leigh, he came up with the idea of Pholio, a secure digital album small enough to fit on a bookshelf at home, where people could store and retrieve all their personal memorabilia, their photos, family videos and which would only be accessible to family members. He tried to raise money from Kickstarter, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Randall and Leigh began looking at how AI could be used to track and anonymise visual data and potentially provide a workable solution to the problem. The idea appealed to Innovate UK who were looking for use cases for AI and machine learning, and preferably ones that would have a positive social impact. Pimloc was awarded a grant of £158,000 under an Innovate UK ‘s emerging and enabling technologies programme to help it bring its idea to market. While they had interest from financial investors, Innovate UK’s backing gave Randall and Leigh “an extra 9-12 months runway that we were able to spend developing the product.” He explains: “It got us to the point where we could show enough product and market fit, for other funders to come on board.”
Pimloc went on to raise £1.4 million in October 2020 in a seed funding round led by Amadeus Capital Partners and a further £5.5m in early 2022. The money has been earmarked to help further refine the end product and support a major sales drive in the US.
Their core product – SecureRedact – is now being adopted by transport companies, schools and health authorities across the UK and Europe, with more to come. It is sold as a SaaS or via APIs and containers which companies can integrate into their local video workflows and systems. Says Randall: “Events like the Manchester Bombing have highlighted the value of surveillance cameras but also the complex issues involved in accessing and using the information in a timely and sensitive way.” As Randall explains: “You may have one bad actor. But 99% of the time nothing happens.”
Public awareness is growing, as are the levels of concern. Only last year, Canada banned US company Clearview AI from the country after it was found to have used its facial recognition technology to catalogue biometric information about Canadian citizens without their permission.
In 2022, Pimloc commissioned a survey of UK retailers which found that 43% of the 500 retailers they spoke to had been fined for a violation of video surveillance GDPR legislation. Of these retailers, 13% had a fine that was 4% of their annual turnover, 30% had a fine that cost them 3% of annual turnover, 37% had a fine that cost 2% of their annual turnover. These are big sums. A staggering 33% of those fined had to close stores as a result, and 41% had to lay off staff. Operators in both public and private sectors are increasingly aware of the need to prove that they are not just willing to protect the privacy of individuals they may have caught on camera but also that they have the means do so.
Reflecting back on what Innovate UK gave them, Randall recalls how much they learnt from the application process: “Just completing the application form was a useful exercise. It forces you to think through what is important.” Something which has stood Pimloc in good stead as they have moved forward with the development of their product and their business.