In Depth: Surveillance in Major Cities - We're Watching You Week


By Gabriela Kalter

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

There’s no doubt that our standards for privacy have shifted drastically over the years as technology has seen greater advances. Our lives have become more public, as an understandable result of the internet and the continued development of various tracking devices and security monitors.

Since the Boston Marathon bombings in April, the discussion of video surveillance has reignited debate between security hawks, government officials, and civil liberties groups.

Thinking farther back to 9/11, we’ve only since grown accustom to the increased security measures that may or may not actually be making us safer. Commercially, that fear is at the root of the blossoming video surveillance business into a massive $3.2 billion dollar industry in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Also since 9/11, an estimated 30 million security cameras have been sold in the United States alone, according to IMS, a market research firm in the industry.

Yet the post-9/11 personal security fetishism bubble burst for the surveillance business after for only about five years then slowing significantly largely because the fear had largely subsided, at least in America anyway. In countries like Israel however, where violence is happening much too frequently, are still strong areas for the security business.

As far as public contracts with surveillance providers go, there are a number of major municipalities across the world that have served to keep the industry well into the black. Recent events are also likely to have an encouraging effect.

Among them, the video surveillance industry is expected to see exponential growth in sales since the Boston Marathon bombings. Although images of the assailants were blurry and rough, the footage captured by the security cameras of a department store undoubtedly allowed the FBI to track down the suspects only three days following the attacks.

In 2007, Boston’s surveillance system totaled at about 55 closed-circuit television cameras set up around the city by law enforcement. That number has increased since but to a number unspecified by authorities. Comparatively though, a 55-camera surveillance network is very small for a major city.

London, for instance, is said to have one of the most extensive and elaborate security systems of any city in the world. The sophisticated surveillance network is called the “Ring of Steel,” combining around half a million cameras monitoring activity in the heart of the city. The system was set up in 1998 and with the capabilities of automatic, emergency roadblocks, and license plate readers, London authorities can track anyone who enters or exits central London.

Despite London’s extensive surveillance measures, it still took them a couple of weeks to gather the necessary footage to help them in the investigations following the London bombings in 2005. It took thousands of investigators substantially more time to navigate the footage for suspects compared to the relatively quick detective work following the Boston Marathon.

Perhaps this is why London police have been seeking out the assistance of civilians in identifying criminals. Authorities have posted screen shots from security cameras onto a Flickr page, as well as onto a Tumblr blog entitled, “catch a looter.” It is their hope that ordinary citizens will help them catch looters through analysis and review of the security footage.

Designed to model London’s “Ring of Steel” security system, New York City’s Lower Manhattan Security Initiative was a $150 million initiative, comprised of 3,000 security cameras installed south of Canal Street. Like London’s system, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative includes license plate readers and radiation detectors that set up automatic roadblocks in case of an emergency.

The ability to read license plate numbers and detect radioactive materials is the NYPD’s way to track terrorist activities and behavior of potential criminals. The system conveniently pulls up crime records and arrest warrants and checks the license plate against a watch list and large database of already stored information.

About 10 months ago, the NYPD released the Domain Awareness System which is a new computer network that works to fight crime. Microsoft assisted in the development of the system, which had an estimated cost of $30-$40 million. The system consolidates every NYPD database and gives them access to every single one of the 3,000 street cameras throughout the city. It draws real-time information from the sensors installed throughout lower and midtown Manhattan. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly calls the Domain Awareness System “one-stop shopping for investigators.”

“For years, we’ve been stove-piped as far as databases are concerned. Now, everything that we have about an incident, an event, and an individual comes together on that workbench,” Kelly told The NY Daily News.

Unlike NYC, San Francisco actually has policy that does not allow any real-time monitoring of city-owned surveillance cameras. The videos are only allowed to be viewed after the fact, if there is a crime. Since the Boston Marathon bombings, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, has been working diligently to have that policy changed. He made a plea to the Board of Supervisors moving to increase the video surveillance throughout the city, specifically along main parade routes like Market Street.

“Everybody likes video. Juries like video. Investigators like video. Prosecutors like video. And I think, in looking at the Boston Marathon, they made that case off of video,” said Greg Suhr in an interview with PBS. “They have cameras now that are so sophisticated that they have video analytics on them where you can say things like, a package cannot be on the ground for more than 30 seconds, and the camera will actually box the item and send off an alert to whoever is monitoring the cameras.

These are the type of new technologies that are being developed at companies like 3VR, a San Francisco based technology firm that works with federal and local law enforcement agencies, as well as private companies and banks.

“It instantaneously gives you a picture of everybody who has walked in the door in the past based on the geometries of their face,” 3VR CEO Al Shipp tells CNN. He says that the computers aren’t there to take over for humans but to assist investigators by weeding out useless information.

The system can track gender, age, mood and other patterns of behavior. With a simple face capture in the surveillance footage, authorities can identify people based on analysis of their facial structure, through details like how their nose is shaped or the distance between their eyes.

The FBI is currently in the process of building its own facial recognition database. With the help of state DMVs, the FBI is gaining access to photos of U.S. citizens and storing information in the connected databases for future use.

Similarly, the CIA has invested an estimated $600 million for cloud computing services from Amazon to save data indefinitely. “The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time. Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” said CIA Chief Technology Officer, Gus Hunt.

Obviously, the issue of privacy comes up amidst such advanced surveillance technologies and the government’s increased desire to invest and implement even more intrusive systems. Civil Liberties groups like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) are concerned about the effects on our freedom. More troubling perhaps is the concern that the footage will be misused to track political protestors or use this high level surveillance to track low level crimes, which some say criminalizes poverty is some ways.

“If we permit our fear to lead us down a path where everyone becomes a suspect, not only are we violating fundamental principles of democracy, but we also are undermining public safety because when everyone is a suspect, then no one is a suspect,”said the Executive Director of the ACLU in Massachusetts, Carol Rose, in an interview with Bloomberg News.

So are we actually entitled to the degree of freedom we expect? Lawyer and Professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, Christopher Swift notes in the same story how the 1989 Supreme Court case Florida v. Riley held that police don’t need a warrant to observe an individual’s property from public airspace. The ruling provides for all kinds of surveillance at the hands of the government, regardless of how invasive privacy scandals of the present may appear.

Thus as technology evolves and security measures expand without resistance, objectors may feel helpless to dam the rising tide against the public’s right to privacy. While fear has played a significant role in the demand for both public and personal surveillance, the distracting force of larger privacy issues hinders public awareness of how authorities are ratcheting their efforts to increase such surveillance.

The outrage-turned-debate over the NSA scandal may have turned national attention back to data-based surveillance, but it might mean a battle lost in the greater struggle over security versus freedom in reality.