Should US cities try a London-style camera network?
New York plans to install a permanent, extensive system for lower Manhattan by year's end.
The speed with which London's ubiquitous surveillance cameras helped identify would-be bombers has prompted calls for extensive closed-circuit television networks in the US.Skip to next paragraph
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In the first such public effort in the US, New York is planning to begin the installation of a similar, permanent system for lower Manhattan by year's end.
In the struggle against terrorism at home, its backers say CCTV is both a forensic tool and a deterrent to all but the most dedicated suicide bombers. Sophisticated imaging technology allows cameras to alert police to unattended packages, zoom in on objects hundreds of feet away, identify license plates, and "mine" archived footage for specific data.
Opponents contend that this very technology is overly intrusive and open to abuse, raising serious constitutional questions. They also note that surveillance cameras not only are helpless against suicide bombings, but also that perpetrators may use video records to try to glorify their acts.
The British system was developed in the 1970s and '80s with little public discussion, in response to attacks by the Irish Republican Army. By the 1990s, technology improvements made it a key tool in the security cordon around central London known as the "ring of steel."
But the US has a very different constitutional system, some experts say, one that requires vigorous public debate before the government wires cities with a similar network of live, roving electronic eyes.
"We haven't even begun to have that debate over here about what that means in terms of surrendering privacy," says Ronald Marks, senior fellow at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute. "[Closed-circuit television] is a security measure that is effective in identifying people, but I don't know how effective it ... is at stopping them."
Millions of private cameras already guard building entrances, chemical plants, and malls. Most police departments in big cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, use surveillance cameras in high-crime areas and to identify traffic scofflaws. Most of those recordings have to be downloaded so the images can be analyzed.
A government surveillance center
American cities, however, don't have extensive live networks tied to a central surveillance center like London's. New York's plan is the first to emulate it.
The first 115 cameras are expected to be operating by the end of the year. By 2010, as many as 3,000 cameras could be installed. One-third would be owned by the New York Police Department and the other two-thirds by private security agencies working with businesses. All the images would feed into a surveillance center staffed by both the NYPD and private security agents.
The system will be able to identify license plates and can alert police to unattended packages or vehicles that repeatedly circle the same block. Eventually, it will be tied to a series of movable roadblocks that can be activated, with the push of a button, from the NYPD's surveillance office.
Such systems make the environment "operationally more dangerous" for terrorists, says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. "They make it more difficult for attackers, short of those who are willing to commit suicide. That reduces the number of attackers and reduces the number of bombs in the operation."