Cities Spend Millions to be Peeping Toms

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Smile. You're on candid cameras.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, there is a good chance a security camera is going to catch you in the act. Surveillance video is everywhere, with public and private eyes keeping tabs on you.
Feel like somebody is watching you? With public and private security cameras, someone probably is.

The Occupy protesters have noticed.

"At Zuccotti Park, there are at least two special cameras trained on the park and apparently recording activity at all times," reads an Oct. 20 letter from the New York Civil Liberties Union to New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly, referring to the base camp for the Occupy Wall Street protest. "It appears to us that the department's approach is basically to videotape all Occupy Wall Street activity. This type of surveillance substantially chills protest activity and is unlawful."

A similar complaint had been lodged by the Boston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It claims to have mapped out approximately 30 cameras on buildings near their Dewey Square base of operations that could be focused on protesters. It is unclear, however, which are monitored by police and which are used privately for security.

Despite the wider adoption of surveillance cameras since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. still lags behind the pervasive use of the technology in Europe.

In the U.K. there are an estimated 4 million surveillance cameras in use, roughly one for every 14 citizens. In London, the more than 1 million cameras focused on city streets means the typical person is recorded more than 300 times a day.

Municipalities, often using grant money from the Department of Homeland Security, are starting to catch up to Europe. Chicago, in particular, may be one of the most recorded cities in America.

In February, the ACLU issued a report on Chicago's network of surveillance cameras -- which it calls "an unregulated threat" to privacy -- and proposed guidelines for their use.

Although city officials won't detail the full inventory of its surveillance network, the ACLU and other groups say that street-level count and reviews of budget expenditures indicate that the city has access to 10,000 publicly and privately owned cameras. At least $60 million has been spent on "our nation's largest and most integrated camera network," it claims.

Chicago Public Schools have more than 4,500 cameras inside and around their buildings, the Chicago Transit Authority has nearly 5,000 and O'Hare airport has at least 1,000, the group says. City officials have also negotiated access to privately owned cameras for at least 11 buildings, including the Willis Tower (once known as the Sears Tower). The network of public and private cameras are integrated and monitored by the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

"In the downtown district, virtually every segment of the public way is under video surveillance," the ACLU says.

The sophisticated technology used in Chicago (as well as other U.S. cities) includes "pan-tilt-zoom" features capable of reading newspaper from hundreds of feet away, facial recognition tied to an image database and the ability to track a person or vehicle as they move from one camera to the next.

"Chicago's camera network invades the freedom to be anonymous in public places, a key aspect of the fundamental American right to be left alone," the ACLU report says. "While earlier camera systems tracked only how some people spend some of their time in the public way, a camera on every corner results in government power to track how all people spend all of their time in the public way. Each of us then will wonder whether the government is watching and recording us when we walk into a psychiatrist's office, a reproductive health care center, a political meeting, a theater performance or a bookstore."

Among the protocols it wants cities such as Chicago to abide by are: requiring "individualized, reasonable suspicion" before using zoom features on a specific person; requiring probable cause before using facial recognition or automatic tracking features; a ban on disseminating images to third parties; forbidding the use of cameras to record activities taking place in private areas; and erasing recordings promptly unless there is evidence of criminal activity or the images are relevant to an ongoing investigation or pending trial.

In an effort to fight back against public surveillance, there have been efforts to map the exact location of cameras. An activist group, The Institute for Applied Autonomy, for example, created iSee, a Web-based application for charting the locations of closed-circuit television surveillance cameras. In Manhattan, users can find routes that avoid these cameras ("paths of least surveillance," as the group calls them).

A 1998 study conducted by the NYCLU identified 2,397 visible, outdoor cameras in New York City. Seven years later, their count rose to 4,468 in lower Manhattan alone, a number that is undoubtedly higher today.

Does all that surveillance yield results?

Law enforcement officials often tout the effectiveness of traffic cameras in catching speeding, unsafe drivers and managing the flow through busy intersections.

Cameras are also cited as a terrorism prevention tool, although it's worth noting that despite at least 82 cameras scattered through New York's Times Square, it was the tip from street vendor that alerted authorities to a potential car bomb last year, rather than video evidence.

A 2008 study of Los Angeles' cameras by the University of Southern California found little or no impact on violent and quality-of-life crimes. Neither did 2009 research on San Francisco's cameras by the University of California at Berkeley.

A study last month by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, however, looked at Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and found relatable drops in crime.

Washington had the fewest cameras of the three cities, but found success by placing them strategically in high-crime areas.

Baltimore, which grew from a pilot program of just five cameras to more than 500 in its downtown and high-crime areas, has constant live monitoring. Since their installation, there have been "significant declines in total crime, violent crime and larceny" in the downtown with "no evidence that crime was being displaced to nearby areas," the researchers wrote. Results, they point out, were "mixed" in other parts of the city.

The study estimates that Baltimore's $8.1 million (as of 2008) program led to savings of approximately $12 million in criminal justice (police, courts and corrections resources) and victimization (out-of-pocket, pain and suffering) costs.

In Chicago, mixed results in some neighborhoods were overshadowed by successes in other, high-crime areas. In the streets of Humboldt Park, cameras were estimated to have saved the city $4.30 for every dollar spent on the system.

In Washington, the cameras had less of an overall impact. The number of violent crimes and assaults dropped, but thefts rose. Police in that city -- although citing surveillance as a helpful tool -- said they feared crime was merely displaced from one area to another.

While the effectiveness of surveillance cameras is debated, one thing is clear: there is a lot of money to be made from the technology.

ABI Research, a firm offering analysis of emerging technologies, says that despite lowering market growth forecasts because the "video surveillance industry has been hit quite hard by the global recession," it still projects industrywide revenue to approach $17 billion this year. That projection includes cameras used for private security and by homeowners.

Government purchases have remained strong, it says, while "other verticals such as banking and retail are still recovering" from economic setbacks.

"Among video surveillance vendors, H-P ( HPQ) is very well positioned," says ABI Research practice director Dan Shey. "It offers storage and servers that could be used for storage. It acquired 3Com, which gives it access to video surveillance equipment developed in China as part of a joint venture. So it is well placed to offer a one-stop shop for complete solutions."

Other companies in the surveillance camera space, domestic and international, are Cisco ( CSCO), IBM ( IBM), General Electric ( GE) and Honeywell ( HON).

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

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