View Full Version : U.S. Surveillance To Undergo A British Revolution?

07-12-2007, 12:31 PM
U.S. surveillance to undergo a British revolution?


By Alexandra Marks

NEW YORK — The speed with which London's surveillance cameras helped identify bombers and would-be bombers has prompted calls for extensive closed-circuit TV networks in the United States.

In New York, officials announced plans to outfit hundreds of Manhattan buses with cameras and add 3,000 motion sensors to subways and commuter-rail facilities.

In the struggle against terrorism, backers of closed-circuit television (CCTV) said the system is 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 said the technology is intrusive and open to abuse, raising serious constitutional questions. They also noted that surveillance cameras are helpless against suicide bombings and 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 United States has a different constitutional system, one that requires vigorous public debate before the government wires cities with a similar network of live, roving electronic eyes, some experts said.

"We haven't even begun to have that debate over here about what that means in terms of surrendering privacy," said Ronald Marks, senior fellow at George Washington University's 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.

U.S. cities, however, don't have extensive live networks tied to a central surveillance center as in London. 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, up to 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 the police department and private security agents.

The system will be able to identify license plates and 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 police department's surveillance office.

Such systems make the environment "operationally more dangerous" for terrorists, said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at RAND Corporation. "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."

He cited differences between the 2004 Madrid and 2006 Bombay, India, train bombings, and the 2005 London bombings. Attackers in Madrid and Bombay, who were not suicide bombers, placed several bombs and killed more than 200 people in each attack. London's four suicide bombers had only the bombs on their backs and killed 52.

"Fifty-two deaths is still tragic, but it's better than 200," Jenkins said.

Britain has about 4 million closed-circuit security cameras, and police said the average Briton is on as many as 300 cameras every day.

Cameras enabled police in London to identify the 2005 bombers quickly. In the attempted attacks in London on June 29, police used the cameras to track and identify the alleged culprits and arrest them.

"That accelerated the investigation, and [police] were able to reassure the public that the perpetrators of this particular attack aren't still on the run," Jenkins said. "That has the effect of reducing the fear and terror that the attackers hoped to create."

Critics of such extensive surveillance said the deterrent effects are exaggerated.

"It just doesn't work," said Bruce Schneier, a security-technology expert in Minneapolis. As for New York's plan to emulate London's "ring of steel," he said, "At best, the terrorists would go bomb Boston instead."

Cost estimates for New York's complete system are $90 million. The first phase, which covers Lower Manhattan and includes a surveillance center, will cost $25 million.

Concerns about cameras' intrusiveness and how law-enforcement officers will use the images remain paramount for civil libertarians and privacy advocates. Cameras today, they noted, surpass an police officer's ability to see the surroundings: They can rotate 360 degrees, zoom in on license plates hundreds of feet away and see in the dark. They create a video record for police to archive and data-mine for decades. When used aboard helicopters and blimps, they can blanket large swaths of a city with live surveillance. All of this, they said, is open to abuse by government officials.