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October 31, 2007
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Bay Area's transit updates cameras; System will detect suspicious activity automatically

By Rachel Gordon
The San Francisco Chronicle

BAY AREA, Calif. BART will spend $5.4 million to upgrade and expand its security camera system to help protect Bay Area transit riders from terrorist attacks and everyday crimes, officials said Monday.

The regional rail agency will deploy the cameras in stations, on the trains, along tracks, in the Transbay Tube, in parking lots and at other facilities. The new system will make use of sophisticated software that allows the cameras to detect such suspicious activity as an unattended backpack on a boarding platform or trespassers in areas off limits to the public.

If the cameras pick up something out of the ordinary, authorities will be automatically alerted, BART Police Chief Gary Gee said.

BART, like most other major transit systems in the nation, including San Francisco's Muni operation, has used anti-crime cameras for years. With the infusion of anti-terrorism money from federal and state governments, the technical quality of the surveillance systems is improving.

But experts acknowledge that the efficacy of such systems drops when the cameras are not rigorously monitored.

As is now the case, BART police officers will be able to monitor the video live from their Oakland control center, Gee said. The agency doesn't have the staff to watch the camera feeds all day and night and so will rely on spot checks and the automatic alerts to direct officers toward potential problems, the chief said.

Questions have been raised in San Francisco recently about 68 cameras installed in areas of high crime over the last two years. Advocates concerned about privacy have fought efforts to have the city's cameras continuously monitored. It's also unclear whether the cameras have helped prevent any crimes.

Nevertheless, the BART camera program is endorsed by California's director of homeland security.

"One of the things we know in terms of threat is that our mass transit systems are very much at risk. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out when you look at the history of some of the attacks that al Qaeda has engaged in," said Matthew Bettenhausen, the governor's homeland security chief.

He was in San Francisco's Powell Street Station on Monday to announce the allocation of $5.4 million in voter-approved state funding for BART's camera program. The money is part of a $19.9 billion transportation bond California voters approved last fall - $1 billion of which is earmarked for security enhancements.

Gee said BART's new camera system will allow officers to better zoom in on suspicious people and items. The new system also includes improved archives, which officials hope will aid investigators after a crime occurs.

BART, which provides about 350,000 trips a day in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Contra Costa counties, has identified $250 million in security needs - from more bomb-sniffing dogs and security cameras to devices that detect chemical, biological and radiological contamination.

"There's no way we can afford to pay for all the items on our list with BART fare revenues," BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger said.

Still, the state bond money covers just a sliver of the $50 million camera project. The agency will implement the upgrades in phases when funding becomes available, concentrating first on the areas with the most riders. Officials declined to offer more specifics on where the new cameras will be deployed or how many there will be, saying they don't want to give secrets away to those looking to do harm.

"The deterrence factor cannot be ignored," Bettenhausen said.

BART has already had some success with its old cameras. Agency spokesman Linton Johnson said graffiti dropped 98 percent after the cameras were installed on trains.

Cameras have also helped solve crimes on transit systems. In August, for example, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority used video footage to help find two suspects who assaulted a passenger. And earlier this month, cameras picked up people breaking into cars in BART's parking lot at the Coliseum/Oakland Airport Station. Police then apprehended the suspected culprits at the scene, Johnson said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have criticized the growing use of public cameras - mounted on patrol cars, traffic signals, freeway overpasses and utility poles and in buses, trains and airports - as an invasion of personal privacy. But advocates say that in an era of heightened awareness of terrorist threats, the security that cameras offer is worth the loss of privacy.

"I think in a public environment, expectations and standards have changed, and are changing," Dugger said.

Bettenhausen said the surveillance system won't serve as an absolute safeguard against terrorism.

"Obviously it doesn't completely stop it, as we saw in 9/11 and we saw in the London bombings, but it certainly helps," he said. "It is a useful tool for identifying potential plotters and preventing additional attacks."

Copyright 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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