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How AI, facial recognition are revolutionizing physical security in Asia


The elderly man inside the doorway of a residential building tucked in a tiny corner with his cup of tea, crumpled newspaper, and transistor radio – is a common sight for residents in Hong Kong’s many high-rise flats.

Usually in his 60s or 70s, he is sometimes the doorman and is almost always gruff. Other times, he gives directions and is generally tasked with ensuring security for the building. But elderly guards are endangered species.

“Young people won’t want to sit there reading a newspaper all day or even play with their smartphone. They’ll be bored to death,” said Paul Chong, chief executive of Certis Group, the Singapore-based security company that started off as a division within the country’s police force.

With high-definition video surveillance cameras, facial recognition, and remote sensors feeding tons of data into AI algorithms to analyze in real time, technology has advanced to the point where the “old uncle” is no longer needed, according to Chong.

Like other sectors buffeted by the winds of technological change, the concept of physical security is also being redefined by the new tools being used to ensure safety and deter crime.

Certis began in 1958 as the Guard and Escort Unit of the Singapore Police Force. It later became a statutory board in the island state’s private armed security industry before incorporating in June 2005 as a wholly owned subsidiary of Temasek Holdings. The outfit recorded S$1.2 billion (US$887 million) in its 2018 financial year, crossing the billion-dollar mark for the first time.

Certis has grown its presence in the Greater China region in recent years to about 3,000 employees today, rising from under 1,500 in 2017. To spearhead its expansion, the company earlier this month appointed former Hong Kong Commissioner of Police Tang King-shing as its regional chairman.

On a sunny afternoon in January, the South China Morning Post visited the technology center of Certis, which is nestled in a quiet industrial neighborhood in Singapore. The facility is equipped with the latest advances in security technology and houses a command center that oversees security at some of its corporate customers, including a number of major shopping malls.

AI is now smart enough to detect if a person is acting out of the ordinary and flag these “exceptions” to the central command center, where human operators can decide on the course of action.

For low-level actions like a smoke detector being activated, AI can automatically tell personnel on the ground to check and report. Depending on the level of sophistication, high-definition cameras with thermal imaging can determine whether there is a fire, negating the need for human officers to visit the site and cutting down response time.

Ground sensors along perimeter fences mean that there is no need for human patrols because any movement would trigger an alert. The use of analytics also frees up human operators from having to constantly monitor banks of screens and dealing with cases flagged by the software.

All of these advances are a far cry from when Chong first joined Certis in 2004. Those were the days of pre-digital video, when the tapes of camera recordings from ATMs had to be changed daily. At that time, security companies also had to figure out how to store and archive the ATM camera footage.

The shift to digital video was like “a breath of fresh air.” And combined with the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, it fundamentally changed the direction of security, according to Chong.

Still, there is a growing debate about the limits of surveillance and the trade-offs between security and privacy. In China, for example, facial recognition is now being used not just for access control at border checkpoints, but also to take attendance in classrooms. The technology, which builds a digital map of a face using different contour points, is also being deployed at US airports.

Asked if he foresees a pushback against surveillance, Chong said that his “sense today is that people have a certain level of trust that the information gathered is being used for noble purposes – to protect people.”

He likened the use of advanced surveillance system to anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing laws that are putting an effective end to banking secrecy. The global move to clamp down on illicit money flows, with the aim to cut funding to terrorist organizations, has led to a social good, even though one might argue governments now know how much money one has or is moving around, he said. A similar argument could be made for the developing debate on privacy.

“So long as people see that their information is not abused, they’d trade it for security, they’d trade it for convenience, they’d trade it for a lot of other things,” Chong said.

Still, he concedes that it only takes one instance of abuse for there to be a pushback.

In terms of expanding in Hong Kong, Chong sees a lot of similarities with Singapore because “the conditions are similar.”

Rising wages and a shrinking pool of young people who are willing to do such jobs also means that commercial and residential property landlords have to think about breaking the “manpower addiction,” he said.

“It is a no-brainer that your costs will balloon,” Chong said, citing the city’s rising minimum wage. “[With] technology, you spend one time and if you maintain it, and if you’re not really fussy about the latest trend, it does the job for the next five to eight years fairly easily, and the costs stay flat,” he added.

“The retailer landlords are facing cost pressures, manpower costs are going up because of legislation, and there aren’t enough people. So you really have to find novel ways to solve problems.”


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