U.S. transit agencies turn to cameras in terror fight, but systems vary in effectiveness
(The following article by Sewell Chan was posted on the New York Times website on July 14.)
NEW YORK -- In San Francisco and Washington, subway stations and platforms are under constant surveillance by closed-circuit television cameras. New Jersey Transit uses computer software that automatically alerts the police when an unattended package shows up on video monitors. The light-rail system in Houston plans to enable its onboard security cameras to transmit live images, wirelessly, to police cruisers.
In New York City, which has the largest mass transit system in the United States and is considered the country's most likely target for a terrorist attack, use of cameras is sporadic and not well coordinated. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority uses 5,723 cameras throughout its network, but they are not distributed uniformly; there are none, for instance, in close to half of the city's 468 subway stations.
Since the 1970's, transit agencies across the world have tried, first as a deterrent to combat vandalism, then with greater urgency after terror threats, to prevent and investigate crimes using electronic surveillance. In the United States, these efforts have produced a hodgepodge of systems, some advanced and others barely existent.
The need for, and usefulness of, surveillance was given fresh significance after the bombings in London last week, and in particular with the announcement on Tuesday that cameras had evidently helped to identify likely suspects, including at least one presumed suicide bomber.
But while cameras were evidently critical in this investigative breakthrough, the London attack also underscored their limitations: the cameras, of course, could not and did not prevent the explosions. Similarly, video cameras captured some of the movements of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but those images chiefly served, in the aftermath of the attacks, as a kind of eerie visual diary.
Officials in London, which has one of the most extensive surveillance networks in the world, believed that by making cameras omnipresent they would deter bombers, particularly the Irish Republican Army.
"It obviously does not deter suicide bombers," said Brian M. Jenkins, a consultant at the RAND Corporation, a policy research organization, "but it did have a measurable effect on the I.R.A.'s campaign."
But the proliferation of cameras came with practical problems, too.
"Unless you have thousands of people watching thousands of cameras, you don't have the same effect as with actual police presence," Mr. Jenkins said.
In fact, the whole notion of using cameras to fight crime, including terrorism, inside the world's transportation networks is fraught with financial and technological challenges.
The traditional model of surveillance cameras - a bank of monitors with fuzzy black-and-white images, under a person's inattentive gaze - is being replaced by digital video recorders that transmit, record and store data over fiber-optic or wireless networks. But the new software and wireless enhancements mean that a single custom-built camera can cost over $10,000 to acquire, install and maintain.
Nonetheless, the use of video surveillance has already become a major thrust of transit security programs in the United States.
"The technology now allows a very quick replay and return to specific points in time, and much better quality in terms of the resolution of images," said Greg Hull, director of operations safety and security at the American Public Transportation Association.
The National Transit Institute, a federally funded training and research organization at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., has studied the new technologies, but Christopher A. Kozub, the associate director for safety and security programs, cautioned that few have been proved to be fail-safe.
"The application of smart technology is only in its embryonic stages," he said. "The potential is there, but variables like temperature conditions, the passenger environment and rush-hour influxes are all very hard to program into these systems."
Mr. Hull and Mr. Kozub said that no one has rigorously studied the use of cameras by transit agencies across the world. In the United States, transit agencies vary widely in their use of cameras. In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, which opened in 1972, has cameras in all 43 stations, but the system has its limits. Station agents on duty are responsible for monitoring the video screens for their stations, and only some of the stations record and save images.
In the past decade, vandalism plummeted after cameras were installed in many of BART's 669 cars. "We want to enhance them to be all digital, with wireless capability, but we're not there yet," said the agency's police chief, Gary Gee, who added that upgrading surveillance systems is a major part of the $200 million antiterror wish list that the agency compiled after Sept. 11.
New Jersey Transit, the largest statewide transit agency in the country, uses more than 1,400 cameras across its 11 commuter rail lines, 3 light-rail lines and 240 bus routes. The agency has begun connecting its cameras to computers that can automatically detect suspicious activity, using a complex algorithm.
"Any abnormality that differentiates from the algorithm will set off an alarm or a pager, or give a call to whoever is responsible for that camera," said the agency's police chief, Joseph C. Bober.
The system can also be used to avoid the cautionary evacuations that have become the norm since Sept. 11. One day last summer, for example, when a suspicious bag was identified at Pennsylvania Station in New York, the agency quickly reviewed recorded images and determined that it had inadvertently been left behind by an employee.
In Houston, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Tex., opened a 7.5-mile light-rail line, its first, in January 2004. All 17 stations and 18 cars were equipped with cameras, but the agency is now testing enhancements that would allow the cameras to transmit live images wirelessly to police cruisers and law enforcement centers.
In New York City there are 2,328 cameras in 276 stations, but none on the 6,182 subway cars, although the newest ones were built to accommodate them.
Thursday, July 14, 2005
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