NYPD Developing CCTV Camera System That Will Be Better Than London's

New York Police Department is building a closed-circuit TV surveillance system which it hopes will eventually be more sophisticated and effective than the closed-circuit TV (CCTV) system used by police in London and other British cities. The widespread use of CCTV monitoring in Britain has been touted by UK authorities as a critical tool for solving crimes and maintaining public order but has been criticized by civil libertarians as a Big Brother–like widespread invasion of personal privacy.

According to official estimates, in London, the Metropolitan Police (a.k.a. Scotland Yard) and its partners in the City of London Police, who patrol the "square mile London borough that hosts most of Britain's financial industry, have access to video from roughly 500,000 cameras positioned all around the city. Officials estimate that in any one day, an ordinary citizen making a routine trip within London—to and from work, say—would be captured on video by 200 to 300 CCTV cameras.

Jessica Tisch, director of policy and planning for NYPD's Counterterrorism Bureau, outlined the current status of NYPD's CCTV initiative and some of its future goals in a briefing presented earlier this week to hundreds of NYPD officers, private security executives, and journalists at the department's headquarters near City Hall. She said that the system that NYPD is building will, at least in its first stages, involve far fewer cameras than London presently has. But NYPD hopes that two key design features that are being built into its system will ultimately make it as, or more, technically advanced and effective than London's camera system.

For a start, Tisch said, the CCTV system NYPD is building will have all its cameras connected to a single network, which will have high bandwidth capacity and will be dedicated to the transmission and processing of that video data and it will have multiple, redundant data storage repositories to keep copies of video pictures for 30 days, after which the pictures will be discarded. In London, video from cameras is transmitted via a system comprised of several separate networks and storage points based on London's police districts and borough maps. Although CCTV pictures are also stored in London for 30 days, they are harder to retrieve on an urgent basis because of the decentralized design of the storage and transmission system, making it more time-consuming and logistically awkward to screen and assemble video chronologies in cases where trails cross network boundaries.

Tisch said that another key feature of the video system NYPD is building will be the use of sophisticated software algorithms to alert human surveillance and command personnel to potentially suspicious activity spotted by cameras. Software will be designed and installed so that when a camera picks up certain types of shapes, movements or colors, the system itself should call potentially suspicious pictures to the attention of live operators. These algorithms, Tisch said, would be designed to spot "potentially suspicious objects or activities," such as unattended packages, vehicles traveling against the flow of traffic, loitering, or movement in areas where access is supposed to be banned or restricted. She said that an algorithm for spotting the presence of unattended packages automatically has already been field-tested, with a result of 18 true-positive hits, a seemingly high nine false-positive hits and two false-negative hits. Tisch says that the computerized analytical capability will be a "key enabler" that puts NYPD's technology ahead of systems used in Britain, which still require a huge amount of human monitoring or after-action analysis.

In 2005, NYPD began building its CCTV system in Lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center stood and the New York Stock Exchange and City Hall are located. When it's fully operational in the relatively near future, the "Lower Manhattan Security Initiative," as it's officially called, will have about 3,000 cameras. NYPD is already working on a $40 million program to extend the camera network to midtown Manhattan, an area between 30th and 59th streets which includes Times Square, the United Nations, and Rockefeller Center. But that project is still at a fairly early stage.

While NYPD officials say that because of its limitations, the London CCTV system is mainly useful for reconstructing crimes or incidents after they happen—rather than preventing them—people familiar with British security measures say that the camera system is gradually being used more extensively for intelligence-gathering and surveillance by undercover agencies like Special Branch, the political policing arm of Scotland Yard, and MI5, Britain's clandestine domestic intelligence service, which has no powers of arrest and has to rely on Special Branch officers when it wants to bring criminal cases against suspects.

London's CCTV system is so pervasive that after suicide bombers attacked three London subway trains and a double-decker bus on July 7, 2007, investigators eventually were able to assemble CCTV montages showing the bombers arriving in London by train for their suicide missions and, earlier, conducting an apparent practice "dry run" testing out the routes for their attacks. According to people who worked on the investigation, CCTV cameras in the cars of subway trains which were bombed showed the bombs actually going off.

Tisch said that NYPD's cameras would only be trained on public spaces, and that her department would not be installing "face recognition" software, which critics fear would be a particular threat to personal privacy. She said that the NYPD system would be operated according to explicit privacy guidelines and that police personnel working with the system would have to participate in a special privacy training course.