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Emerging Trend: Use of Public Surveillance in the U.S.

The attempted terrorist attacks last month in London and Glasgow highlighted the use and importance of video surveillance cameras in the UK, raising the possibility that we would soon see an expanded use of this capability in the U.S. Currently the United States has only a small fraction of the number of surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom.

There are so many of the cameras in Britain that Scotland Yard can literally track the movements of every single car in the country. The system can store data for up to two years, so it essentially creates a massive database of everything moving on British roads. American law enforcement would love to have that kind of system in this country as they try to fight terrorism.

Beyond that, the United Kingdom has the most per-capita CCTVs in the world . Throughout the country there are an estimated five million CCTV cameras, meaning that there is one CCTV camera for every twelve citizens. The United Kingdom has about 1 percent of the world's population and occupies a mere 0.2 percent of the world's inhabitable land mass, but it accounts for more than 20 percent of the world's CCTV cameras.

History of CCTV in Great Britain:
CCTV in Britain spread rapidly during the 1990s, but had been around since the 1950s. In 1956 the police started to use cameras in one-man operations at traffic lights in order to catch drivers running red lights. In 1960 the Metropolitan Police temporarily placed two cameras in Trafalgar Square to monitor the crowds during a public appearance by the Queen. By 1969, 14 police forces around the country were using CCTV, but there were still only 67 cameras in total. During the 1970s and 1980s the retail sector started to become interested but, even as late as 1991, still only ten cities had open-street CCTV systems, and they were small-scale and locally funded. All agree that the turning point was the abduction and murder of James Bulger in 1993. The now famous grainy CCTV image of the two ten-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables leading the trusting toddler by the hand from a Liverpool shopping centre was broadcast around the nation, and subsequently the world.

Before September 11th, it wouldn’t have been considered. And until the London attacks of July 7, 2005, even top police officials might have considered wide spread deployment of surveillance cameras to be intrusive. But that is clearly changing. Just following the first London attacks, In August of 2005, it was announced that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City would add 1,000 surveillance cameras and 3,000 motion sensors to its sprawling network of subways and commuter rail facilities as part of a $212 million security upgrade. At that time MTA spokespersons denied that the deployment was in response to the previous month’s bombings in the London underground.

Back then, I was certain that “life as we know it” was about to change. Despite outcries from civil liberties and privacy rights groups, back in 2005, this Lockheed Martin system was described as “cutting edge”:

"We will be on the cutting edge of this technology in order to protect our system against terrorist attack," said Katherine N. Lapp, the authority's executive director. Lockheed's proposed system "doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, in any other transit agency," she said. Lockheed officials said the system will provide monitoring, surveillance, access control, intrusion detection and response capabilities. The system will feature motion sensors, perimeter sensors, "intelligent video" software and conventional closed-circuit television cameras. The system will use "pixel recognition" technology, which can detect unattended packages by comparing objects in view with reference images.

Today, controversy still surrounds the program with many claiming privacy rights over security. Like it or not, security methods are changing and ever evolving, and with the repeated attempts in the UK last month, the likelihood of trading off safety and security for some level of perceived “privacy rights” is happening. Can the new generation of surveillance cameras, Close Circuit TVs (CCTV) actually assist authorities in preventing a terrorist attack? Some experts think so.

A controversial security program, Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques (SPOT) was launched by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) two years ago and deployed in 14 domestic airports. Although SPOT is a first attempt to use observational technologies to enhance U.S. security, in tandem with luggage checks, radar screening, bomb-sniffing dogs and the rest of our security arsenal, it is believed that program like this one can help reduce risks, and maybe even prevent another deadly assault like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." Early results showed that the overwhelming number of those who are taken out of line and detained for further investigation were intending to commit or had committed some kind of wrongdoing: They were wanted criminals, drug smugglers, money smugglers, illegal immigrants, and a few were suspected terrorists.

Additionally, now there are increasing calls to enhance U.S. security further with outspoken police chiefs such as John Timoney of Miami and William Bratton of Los Angeles emphasizing the importance of British-style surveillance cameras to “effectively fight terrorism.”

British security officials are crediting a national network of surveillance cameras in helping them identify and arrest the key suspects in last week's series of failed car bombings. The pervasive network of CCTVs produces reams of data which the authorities store for up to two years. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston writes that American law enforcement would love to have that kind of system in the United States as they try to fight terrorism. Many police departments initially objected to installing CCTVs in American city becasue of concerns about privacy, but since 7/7 there has been a palpable change of attitude. The help CCTVs provided in identifying the suspects in last week's attacks in London and Glasgow convinced even more heads of police to begin and think seriously about building a similar system on this side of the Atlantic.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative was announced in New York City by Police Chief Raymond Kelly. In the announcement he said, “This area is very critical to the economic lifeblood of this nation. We want to make it less vulnerable.” Of course, civil liberties concerns continue to mount, with worries including whether people who work on Wall St. and all of the tourists to Lower Manhattan will in one way or another be watched by “Big Brother.”

This program marks a whole new level of police monitoring of New Yorkers and is being done without any public input, outside oversight, or privacy protections for the hundreds of thousands of people who will end up in N.Y.P.D. computers," Christopher Dunn, a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, wrote in an e-mail message.

Funding for the program was sidetracked last year when New York City’s Urban Area Security budgets were slashed by 40%. Kelly said that the program was still able to be started with $15 million from the City and $10 million coming from remaining DHS grants.

A few points in closing. It seems that in the UK, there is significantly less public resistance to the surveillance program, and therefore the cameras work as a tool for law enforcement and security people in their efforts to prevent or respond to acts of terrorism. The second point is that with the changes in terrorist tactics as evidenced by the attempts last month in London and Glasgow, and even the aborted JFK Plot in early June, high population density areas require more vigilance. The technology for the real time surveillance of congested areas, soft targets and other targets of opportunity is increasingly available and improving. The question remains if Americans are willing to trade privacy (or a perceived loss of privacy) for increased security.