Washington D.C. Creating City-Wide Surveillance Network

Washington D.C. is attempting to build a city-wide surveillance system that would bring together thousands of city-owned video cameras, but city officials don’t yet have the money to complete the network or privacy rules in place to govern its use.

The security system will conduct 24/7 monitoring of public camera systems run by nine city departments. The first phase will bring together about 4,500 cameras trained on schools, public housing, traffic and government buildings that will feed into a central command office in the Washington D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

Hundreds of additional security cameras will be added within the year.

By bringing all of these surveillance images together in one department, city officials hope to improve public safety and emergency response times.

The large D.C. surveillance system shows just how public security cameras have grown in use since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. By the fall of 2008, Washington D.C. will have installed approximately 5,600 security cameras, which is about triple the number it had in 2001.

Other cities have increased their use of public security cameras as well. New York plans to use a network of 3,000 public and private security cameras to monitor Lower Manhattan. Chicago’s emergency management office will soon be using more than 6,000 video cameras in schools, police other city departments.

U.S. cities, as well as Washington D.C. government departments, have varying regulations on the use of security cameras.

Washington D.C.’s attorney general’s office is currently working on a public policy to protect privacy rights, but it will not be finished by the time the surveillance system is implemented, said Darrell Darnell, head of the city’s homeland security department. Each city agency involved will follow their own rules in the interim, he said. Policies vary on such matters as how long images are kept.

In the past, courts have ruled that people have no right to privacy in public places. However, civil libertarians and some security professionals are concerned about who is watching the electronic eyes and how long they store the electronic images.

“If you’re just saving it, at some point, this stuff is going to be posted to YouTube,” said Frank Baitman, president of Petards Inc., a maker of video security systems.

Issues also can arise when security cameras are installed for one purpose and then used for another unintended reason. One example occurred in Tacoma, Wash., last year, when a high school official showed parents video images of their daughter kissing another girl.

The D.C. surveillance system will have between three to five operators watching footage from the cameras during eight-hour shifts. By the end of 2008, video analytic software will be installed that can alert operators to potentially dangerous events.

Baitman, the security expert, questioned whether that size staff could prevent crime, observing, “There’s no way you could have someone watching 1,500 cameras, even with video analytics, and identify crimes.”

Source: Washington Post