Technology Is Watching

Digital camera surveillance takes off with lower costs and better software.

by / November 11, 2005
With a population of 7.3 million, London is one of the largest cities in the world. The same can be said for its transportation system, which includes the famous double-decker buses and the Tube -- the name Londoners have given their subway.

Approximately 9.4 million journeys are made on public transport every weekday -- 6.3 million by bus, 3 million on the tube and 150,000 by rail, according to Transport for London, the company responsible for the city's transportation system.

This averages more than 3 billion passengers per year, so when three bombs ripped through two trains and one bus on July 7, most people didn't believe the police could track down the perpetrators among the millions using the system. But thanks to video images captured from one of thousands of surveillance cameras in stations, on buses and just about everywhere in London, the bombers were caught.

The city installed nearly 6,000 cameras in the subway system alone, and another 1,800 in railway stations throughout greater London. With nearly 4 million surveillance cameras throughout the country, the typical British commuter is on video 300 times per day, according to The Washington Post, which called Britain the "world's premier surveillance society."

Until recently, few American governments used cameras to keep a watchful eye on people in public places. But given the technology's success in London, and improvements in both price and performance, federal, state and especially local governments are taking a closer look at camera surveillance.

Chicago has the most cameras of any jurisdiction so far -- 2,000 of them monitor public housing, transit and public buildings -- and is adding another 250 in high-crime areas. These new cameras will be equipped with audio detection software that engages the camera, points it in the direction of a loud sound -- such as gunfire -- and alerts authorities at the closest precinct so they can see what's happening.

Other cities with camera surveillance systems include Baltimore and Los Angeles. In August, New York City announced it would install 1,000 cameras and 3,000 motion detectors throughout its sprawling subway, commuter rail and bus systems as part of its post-9/11 security program. The city awarded a $212 million contract to Lockheed Martin that took effect immediately. The defense contractor giant will work with a team of subcontractors who are experts in integrated electronic surveillance, threat detection and deterrence, IT, software engineering, and communications infrastructure projects.

Intelligent Cameras
For years the private sector has used cameras for security purposes, but with the exception of high-risk installations, the public sector has shunned surveillance cameras, given their Orwellian connotations.

That attitude, however, changed four years ago. The events of 9/11 moved security to the forefront, said Vic Berger, lead technologist for CDW Government. "What happened in London earlier this year reinforced the sense of urgency," he said. "I can't name a sector of government that isn't showing interest [in surveillance]."

As attitudes toward cameras have changed, so has the technology. Berger and other IT security experts point to rapid advances that have shifted the nature of camera surveillance from the outdated stereotype of an overwhelmed security person monitoring dozens of flickering black-and-white screens, to one where software does much of the detecting, alerting and analyzing of images. The cameras themselves are smaller, more flexible and project higher resolution color images. Operators no longer need to sit in front of a bank of monitors, but can watch the images -- and control the cameras -- from a computer miles away.

IP-based camera surveillance is certainly where the technology is headed. The private sector, especially the retail and entertainment industry -- think Las Vegas -- has already begun to deploy IP cameras to monitor employees and customers. But so far, government has steered clear of using the Internet as its platform for security.

One exception, however, is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Berger, which is using IP cameras to monitor the nation's border for smugglers.

Costs are certainly less of a factor. Cameras have become a commodity, most selling for less than $200, according to Berger. More sophisticated cameras, however, can cost a lot more. U.S. Customs uses cameras that cost $250,000 each, but are designed to read a license plate on a parked car 2 miles away and withstand searing desert temperatures.

Software has also made the cameras more versatile. Grouped under the term "alert management," these programs are designed to do some of the watching that has traditionally been the job of human operators. They go by the names of ActivEye, Verint, ZViDEO and Vident. St. Louis-based Cernium Inc., developed behavior recognition software that identifies suspicious or unusual behavior through video analysis. ObjectVideo, based in Reston, Va., provides intelligent video products for high-risk environments, such as border, ports, chemical plants and water treatment facilities.

Better compression software also helps push bandwidth-hungry video through local area networks, and Berger called some of the better solutions on the market "phenomenal" when it comes to compressing video images.

Hybrid Solutions
The thought of running multiple video images over a network is enough to make any CIO cringe. But thanks to the explosion of fiber-optic cable laid in the past 10 years, governments might find they have plenty of bandwidth to run sophisticated camera surveillance networks, according to Henry Garcia, vice president of Kroll Schiff & Associates, a multinational security and risk mitigation firm.

Garcia said the Chicago Police Department has been so successful with cameras because it has dedicated fiber to run the networks. Most major metropolitan areas have fiber in the ground. "I would say that large governments have the infrastructure in place," he said.

Given the technological advances that have taken place, one would expect all new video networks to be completely digital and running on IP networks. But that's not the case. "We're seeing a lot of hybrid systems with analog cameras tied to a digital communication network," Garcia observed. Though IP cameras have come down in cost lately, they still cost more than traditional analog models.

Garcia also cautions CIOs to view so-called "intelligent video systems" that rely on software to detect unusual behavior as somewhat immature. "There [are] a lot features out there, but no single system solution," he said.

Garcia, who has been in the security business for years, said the real issue -- as always -- is nontechnical. Who's going to implement and manage the camera surveillance network? he asks. Like other IT projects, CIOs and their staff must make sure they understand the needs and objectives of the agency that's going to run the actual network. Just because a camera system is tied into an IT network doesn't mean the IT staff should manage it, explained Garcia. "What does an IT person know about where to position a camera? I've seen too many bad decisions made by the wrong people."

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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