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Video Surveillance: Balancing security and privacy, capability and cost

Editor’s Note: The below article first appeared on the Alcatel Lucent blog entitled LifeTalk, which is the result of a collaboration between individuals at Alcatel Lucent and PoliceOne Staff.

By Alcatel Lucent

Public safety and security executives struggle with a never-ending calculus of watchful protection: how much is too much? When people feel threatened or otherwise unsafe, they want their guardians to be omnipresent, ready to respond in an instant. At other times when going about their daily business, and especially when they’re doing something they shouldn’t, they want privacy. Aggravating the problem is that it’s difficult to get two people to agree on what is just the right balance between security and privacy. Those most vulnerable to harm will sacrifice some anonymity to feel safer; people who are more willing and able to assume responsibility for their own welfare don’t want to be watched. Is there a way to provide security and preserve privacy?

In exploring this issue, we spoke with Dr. Andreas Olligschlaeger, the president of TruNorth Data Systems, Inc. in Freedom, PA. “Olli” has contracted to and consulted for local and federal law enforcement agencies and is an active member of Police Futurists International. Besides having a Ph.D. from Carnegie-Mellon University, he has the experience of growing up in several countries, the son of a German foreign service officer.

“The notion that we are being watched more than ever isn’t based in paranoia,” Olli told us. “In some urban settings in the United Kingdom, the typical person is captured on video monitoring systems 20 times each day.” Surveillance systems are not as pervasive in the United States, mainly because it doesn’t have the infrastructure to support them. This will change as wireless broadband networks propagate to cover more territory, making systems cheaper to install and maintain. Other countries will follow the same pattern, placing more cameras and recording systems as their infrastructure changes permit.

Historically, video surveillance meant a camera, a monitor, and someone watching the output and/or recording it for later review. Enhanced systems permitted the operator to pan, tilt and zoom (PTZ) the camera to concentrate on the subject of immediate interest. Better, higher-resolution cameras, bigger data pipes and faster computers now allow real-time processing of the data coming from the cameras, far beyond what a human operator could do on his best day. Facial recognition systems compare the geometry of eyes, noses and mouths to a database of “persons of interest,” flagging people in the crowd for closer inspection by the human monitor. Automated license plate recognition systems (ALPR) do the same thing with the registration tags on vehicles, sounding an alarm when a stolen, wanted, or vehicle associated with a crime comes into view. Law enforcement agencies using ALPR report dramatic increases in the number of stolen vehicles they recover with no additional manpower.

ALPR comes with its own set of privacy issues. ALPR systems can be stationary or mobile, and record the license plate, vehicle type, and location of every car that comes into view. A stationary system logs every vehicle that passes that point, where systems mounted on patrol cars record the location, time and date of all the cars it drives by. Privacy advocates complain these systems can be used to track the comings and goings of citizens with no connection to crime, and have concerns about how this data will be used. Will the police restrict their use to finding stolen cars and scofflaws, or might an officer also quietly keep tabs on the activities of an unfaithful spouse?

“Privacy is less of a concern in Europe, where surveillance systems have been in use longer and personal privacy is constitutionally guaranteed,” said Olli. In post-9/11 America, the provisions of the PATRIOT Act and other measures intended to make life difficult for terrorists have eroded the protections of the Fourth Amendment. “We are more watched than ever before, and some people are concerned with who is doing the watching, and why.”

“Video monitoring probably doesn’t do much to prevent crime, although it can be helpful in investigating, solving and prosecuting crimes,” he said. “Key to this issue is the need to have human monitors watching the video output.” Applications like ALPR and facial recognition alert a monitor to some hazards, but they don’t sound an alarm when a purse is ripped from a woman’s arm or a beer bottle comes crashing down on someone’s head. In a typical monitoring center, operators may have hundreds of camera feeds to watch. Operator fatigue is a critical factor. It may take as little as 20 minutes of staring at monitor screens before an operator stops seeing anything at all.

“Wireless broadband also permits users to set up video surveillance on demand… The largest and most sophisticated cities might have the most video coverage now, but broadband puts this capability within the reach of third-world countries because so little infrastructure is needed.”

One reason that video surveillance is expanding is because it’s a lot less expensive than it used to be. Drivers of reduced costs include wireless broadband, smaller and more efficient cameras, and cheaper storage devices. Wireless networks eliminate the need to run coaxial cable to camera installations, and the smaller cameras reduce power requirements. Not so long ago, a video camera required continuous line power; now, a camera and transmitter can run for days or weeks on a battery, and may be able to recharge via a solar collector. Where a US$5.00 VHS cassette could hold two to six hours of NTSC or PAL-quality video, a US$100.00 terabyte hard drive can store hundreds of hours of HD video.

“Wireless broadband also permits users to set up video surveillance on demand,” Olli told us. A self-contained camera, battery and transmitter might be the size of a pack of cigarettes and capable of sending a streaming image anywhere in the world. “The largest and most sophisticated cities might have the most video coverage now, but broadband puts this capability within the reach of third-world countries because so little infrastructure is needed.”

Some social trends drive the proliferation of video in a continuous, self-perpetuating loop. So-called “flash mobs” are organized through social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook for mostly harmless performance art demonstrations. Flash mobs have appeared in shopping malls and train stations to stage pillow fights, burst into spontaneous applause, or perform interpretive dances to Do-Re-Mi or U Can’t Touch This. The performances are much more fun when they’re shared on YouTube, so everyone who has a smartphone or compact video camera is recording them for posterity. But flash mobs can have a dark side, too. One flash mob raided a convenience store in Maryland, with thieves running inside to steal merchandise off of the shelves, protected by the anonymity of the crowd. Another flash mob attacked people leaving the Wisconsin State Fair, knocking people to the ground and stealing personal belongings. This prompts business owners, security firms and law enforcement agencies to put up their own surveillance networks and monitor social media connections to try and stay ahead of the lawbreakers.

“The bad guys, whether they be criminals or terrorists, also use video surveillance,” Olli told us. “Everyone has a smartphone that records video, and most of them can connect to YouTube and Facebook. They’re at the scene and are conducting surveillance of the police as they react to events. This gives them real-time situational awareness. That’s one of the downsides to this technology — the bad guys can use it — too.”

Expansion of video surveillance will be governed largely by geography. “In the U.K., video surveillance is already prolific. It’s everywhere you go. This is true to a lesser extent in the United States. The growth markets will be in developing countries.”

Olli spoke of several considerations in choosing a broadband provider. “Availability is the most critical one — you can’t use a provider if they don’t serve that area. Reliability and bandwidth are important. Price is more of a consideration in the United States than in Europe. The United States is so far behind the rest of the world in broadband access, and there is so little competition here in the United States. In most communities, one company has the monopoly for broadband. In a community near my own, the price for the same broadband access I have in my town is half what I pay, because there are two providers competing for the business.”

When asked what questions a potential customer needed to ask of a broadband provider for carrying video, he said, “Reliability is paramount. Any service should have at least 99 percent uptime. Availability is obviously important, as is cloud services. You should be able to store data remotely as a backup, should your own network go down.”

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