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Security cameras back in demand

After London bomb attacks, several US cities draw up plans to increase surveillance, despite potential downsides.

By Adam KarlinContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2005

It's a scenario out of a sci-fi movie: a surveillance camera that records your face, transmits the image to a database, and raises an alarm if you're a suspected terrorist, a sex offender, or a missing person.

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But what if you're an Al Qaeda agent in a Groucho Marx mask?

Then it gets a little more complicated, as police in Tampa, Fla., discovered a few years ago when surveillance camera technology was a security trend. Under the FaceIt scanning program, the police scanned 100,000 unknowing fans at Raymond James Stadium during the 2001 Super Bowl. But the project was ultimately shelved, in 2003, partly because antisurveillance activists discovered the cameras could be fooled by ski masks, bandannas, even sunglasses.

Interest in the technology never wholly faded, and now, in the wake of the London attacks and the widely publicized use of cameras to track down suspects in those incidents, some politicians in the United States are again saying it's time to seriously consider increased video surveillance. Although they eschew Tampa's complicated biometric bells and whistles in favor of simpler recording networks, the cameras are going up in New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit: in subway tunnels, at bus stops, on downtown promenades, and in low-income neighborhoods. With the programs comes a lively debate on security versus privacy, cost versus effectiveness, and the role of the government when it comes to protecting - and monitoring - citizens.

"People feel safer if they know an area is being watched," says Vincent Morris, a spokesman for Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, who has publicly stated his support for increasing public surveillance since the 7/7 attacks. Mr. Morris calls the cameras a necessity in a city that has already been a terrorist target and describes them as more of a deterrent than an outright preventive measure: "We've had red-light cameras here, and they cause people to slow down," he says.

Some cities are moving ahead quickly. A week after 7/7, New York announced that its Metropolitan Transit Authority would begin installing cameras in the underwater tunnels that link Manhattan to outside neighborhoods.

All of this raises the issue: Cameras that discourage drivers from running red lights are one thing. But suicide bombers, experts say, are liable to blow themselves up whether they're being recorded or not.

'Investigation value'

Still, in their investigations after 7/7 and the attempted 7/21 attacks, British law enforcement has made extensive use of surveillance tape.

"[Cameras] have huge post-incident investigation value and potential prosecution value. One of the reasons the London authorities have made the progress that they've made is because of the images they had on the camera," says Jack Riley, a crime and security expert at the RAND Corp. in Pittsburgh.

But such use alone does not make a city secure, he adds.

"I would put cameras in the same category as improved lighting, increased foot patrols, and the use of explosive-detecting dogs - as a potential deterrent."