Video surveillance networks: Lights, camera, controversy

Advances in video surveillance technology lets Big Brother zoom in


     Ongoing research into large-scale, video-enabled wireless surveillance networks in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech ironically may one day help deter the very type of shooting rampages that occurred in the university's engineering building April 16.

     Wireless surveillance networks provide accurate, real-time visual data from the field.

     We'll never know whether such advanced video surveillance technologies could have mitigated the shootings, but one thing we do know is the trend is away from traditional analog closed circuit television (CCTV) systems and toward wireless, digital, Internet Protocol-based (IP) video surveillance.

     "Security professionals are increasingly concerned with new threats, such as WMDs and explosives devices such as truck bombs, and thus they're applying the most appropriate solutions for thwarting those threats," says Jeff Penny, vice president of ICx Technologies' Surveillance Division located in Washington, D.C.

Industry swing

     The shift toward wireless IP systems is simply because more can be done with IP than traditional analog systems.

     "IP security solutions are scalable, extremely flexible, more easily integrated into IT networks, and allow for massive customization to specific security and operational needs," says Craig Chambers, CEO of Cernium in Reston, Virginia.

     This has a clear impact on the delivery of video surveillance technology in many sectors, particularly law enforcement, which by its nature must receive and react to information from remote locations.

     New surveillance solutions also now include technologies such as 3D and sweeping panoramic views generated by computers that combine multiple camera views into a single picture.

     There are several other advantages of digital over traditional analog systems. One is clarity of image, crucial in security.

     "Analog cameras typically produce blurry, grainy images due to their inability to handle as many lines per image as IP cameras," says CEO Ralf Hinkel of Mobotix in New York, New York. Standard cameras record at 288 lines, whereas some IP cameras record at 960.

     "Remember the foggy image of Mohammed Atta going through airport security on 9/11?" Hinkel asks. "That was an analog image."

The eyes of excess

     The paradigm shift in surveillance does not come without controversy. The proliferation of video surveillance raises fears that freedoms of speech and association are being eroded.

     Chicago and New York already utilize more than 3,000 cameras. The New York Times estimates there are an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain — one for every 14 citizens. London has approximately 500,000 cameras in operation, a legacy of their years of assault by the Irish Republican Army.

     "Surveillance cameras inflict a kind of injury, whether or not they reduce crime," says New Jersey attorney Grayson Barber, a First Amendment litigator and privacy advocate. "They constitute a form of government-sponsored intrusion on personal conduct, even when that conduct is perfectly legal."

     Barber maintains that those who say there is no expectation of privacy in public places are wrong. He contends that just because you're in a public place, the government cannot intrude on your business unless it has a good reason.

     "We shouldn't feel safer that our government is treating all citizens as potential suspects by keeping them all under surveillance," Barber adds. "Instead of saying 'Follow that car!,' they're saying 'Follow all cars!' It doesn't compute."

     Francoise Gilbert, managing director of IT Law Group in Palo Alto, California, says surveillance technology could be abused for purposes unrelated to law enforcement, such as to create secret profiles of individuals.

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