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U.S. cities focus on spy cameras

(The following article by Mike Dorning was posted on the Chicago Tribune website on August 8.)

WASHINGTON -- The striking images of London subway bombers captured by the city's extensive video surveillance system and a rising sense that similar attacks could happen in the U.S. are renewing interest in expanding police camera surveillance of America's public places.

In the aftermath of the London bombings, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), a liberal with a strongly pragmatic bent, called for installing more cameras to monitor passengers in the New York City subway system.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams cited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to press for broader use of cameras, but his efforts to build a video surveillance system for downtown areas were curtailed by resistance from the D.C. City Council and some members of Congress.

Meanwhile, Chicago, which has the largest public video surveillance system in the country, is proceeding to expand its 2,000-camera network and is beginning to encourage businesses to provide the city live feeds from their surveillance cameras.

The London bombings showcased the capabilities of a digital video surveillance system. After the July 7 and July 21 attacks, authorities quickly produced relatively high-resolution images of the suspected bombers that benefited fast-moving investigations.

But to critics, whose reservations are based primarily on privacy concerns, the London attacks also highlighted the limitations of camera surveillance. London has one of the world's largest surveillance systems--the average person there is photographed by 300 cameras in the course of a day, according to a 1999 calculation by two British academics--yet that did not prevent terrorist bombings in the heart of the city.

"It's very difficult to make a case that the cameras are a deterrent to the most determined terrorists, those who intend to give up their life," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert for RAND Corp.

But even with suicide bombers, camera surveillance can help with the hunt for the terrorist cells that provide them crucial logistical support. Clues captured on video might assist in rapidly tracing a bomber's movements, possibly putting authorities on the trail of a previously undiscovered cell.

How cameras can help

"How did they come in? How were they dressed? What were they carrying? What did they look like?" Jenkins said, citing details cameras can reveal.

Even before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, technological advances were driving a rapid expansion in camera surveillance.

Digital cameras provide better-quality images. They are smaller and can be made less obvious. They cost less too, so authorities can buy more.

Cheaper computer capacity, more sophisticated software, fiber optic cable and wireless broadband combine to allow easier monitoring at remote locations, more extensive storage of images and rapid retrieval of crucial video images.

Looking to the future

Emerging technologies offer even greater promise. Chicago is installing gunshot detection equipment on cameras to automatically alert authorities and point the camera in the direction of the sound.

New Jersey Transit has a pilot project in one station that uses computer analysis of video to alert authorities to suspicious behavior, such as someone leaving a package behind. Authorities also are experimenting with facial recognition software, though existing versions are of limited use in scanning crowds for suspected terrorists.

While advocates of camera surveillance argue that people have no legitimate expectation of privacy in a public place, civil libertarians raise concerns about possible abuses.

Critics contend that surveillance that can secretly store images of people creates a new potential for abuse, such as intimidation of political dissenters or blackmail of people caught stealing a kiss from the wrong person or entering a gay club.

"You have essentially imbued the police with Superman's powers," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology & Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "You have the problem that police officers who have access to this data inevitably abuse it."

There have been documented cases of operators abusing cameras for voyeurism. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, a police helicopter that was supposed to be monitoring protesters instead trained its infrared camera on a couple engaged in a romantic encounter on a darkened apartment balcony. The resulting video was obtained by a local TV station.

At a minimum, there should be tight legal controls on camera systems monitoring the public, Steinhardt argues.

"We've got to put some chains on these surveillance monsters," he said.

Countering the terrorist threat to commuter trains, buses and open public spaces is far more complex than bolstering aviation security. And it is one for which the government is spending much less money. As a result, many transit officials and local authorities consider surveillance cameras an attractive tool to include among a mix of security measures.

Unlike airports, where passengers arrive through a few gates, transit systems have numerous entrances. Speed is essential for commuters on their way to work. And fares must be kept low: CTA riders accustomed to a $1.75 fare might well desert the system if they had to pay the $2.50-per-flight security surcharge that airline passengers are charged.

More commuters than fliers

Transit systems also must contend with far larger crowds: More people move through New York's Pennsylvania Station during the morning rush hour than pass through Chicago's busy O'Hare International Airport in 2 1/2 days, said Greg Hull, director of operations, safety and security for the American Public Transportation Association.

Public open spaces are even more difficult to secure. But cameras have the advantage of not slowing the flow of pedestrians.

Evidence is mixed on how effective cameras have been in deterring criminals, much less terrorists who have dedicated themselves to a religious or political cause. A 2002 report by the British Home Office, which examined 22 separate studies of video monitoring systems in the United States and Britain, found that the cameras "had little or no effect on crime in public transport and city centre settings" but did appear to reduce crime in parking lots.

However, cameras do appear to have had an effect as part of a broader campaign that succeeded in pushing IRA attacks out of central London in the 1990s, said Jenkins, who co-authored a case study examining the British authorities' response.

In addition to the video surveillance system, London authorities added uniformed and undercover police patrols, provided extensive security training to transit staff and waged an intensive campaign to encourage the public to immediately report suspicious items.

The effort included regular tests in which covert inspectors would leave suspicious items to gauge the response. At the peak of the IRA threat, the testers would see a response within minutes, Jenkins said.

The IRA moved its attacks to more remote targets. Similar security efforts might simply shift terrorist attacks to other targets.

But that can be a significant achievement, Jenkins said, because it is better to push attacks out of the most crowded areas. Likewise, a bomb detonated in a subway tunnel has its explosive force channeled up and down the train, producing maximum casualties. Above ground, most of the force travels above into the air.

"Do we want to chase them out of the subways and into the streets? Probably yes," Jenkins said.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

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