Government Technology

Computers Watching Over Us

December 27, 2006 By

With cameras installed at every turn monitoring a person's activity, Big Brother was a frightening concept in George Orwell's 1984, in which citizens of a fictitious totalitarian government were watched and punished for slight indiscretions. Many people today may not realize that Orwell's vision has become more than just fiction, and they are indeed being monitored as they work, shop, bank and drive. But rather than a tool to utterly control their lives, these cameras are helping to keep them safer.

Some estimates put more than 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States, shooting four billion hours of footage weekly. Video surveillance has grown into a $160 billion global industry, especially after the U.S. government began investing in the technology to boost homeland security efforts in the wake of 9/11.

Numerous cities have installed cameras in various locations -- many increasingly connected with wireless technologies, with traffic lights only the beginning. New York City, with help from a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant, created a network of thousands of cameras citywide, including subway stations, traffic signals and private businesses. The city's police department operates its own network of 3,000 cameras. Chicago also received DHS funds and built a "Homeland Security Grid" of 2,250 cameras, with plans to add more in the future. Baltimore and New Orleans have also deployed thousands of surveillance cameras.

Municipalities with Wi-Fi networks can often utilize the infrastructure to greatly reduce the cost of deploying video cameras across a city. Emerging mobile video capabilities will play a pertinent role for police and emergency responders, and there is little doubt that the number of video cameras will increase dramatically in the next decade.

Staffing the feeds from thousands of cameras would be a budgetary and logistical nightmare, but with video analytics software that tracks potential problems and monitors areas for preset situations, the problem may be solved.

Video analytics is a software system at the forefront of security technology that helps minimize the need for human viewers to distinguish important events from video feeds. Video analytics software tracks video monitor feeds and pinpoints images that fit specified criteria. When the software identifies predetermined criteria, such as a loiterer, a bag left at the airport or a car in a restricted area, it alerts appropriate security personnel.

"Traditional video services are very reactive, and you have to pay attention to cameras and try to make sense of what's going on," said Dilip Sarangan, research analyst for Frost and Sullivan. "With video analytics, the software uses mathematical algorithms that actually sift through all the videos and trigger alerts if something goes wrong." The software groups video pixels into objects, uploads them into a computer database and compares them against predetermined behavioral and motion parameters. If a preset object or motion parameter is detected, an alarm is triggered.

Security systems benefit the most from the emerging technology. Federal and state governments are currently the largest users of video analytics, taking up more than half of the market share, according to Video Analytics: The Ground Reality, a report by Frost and Sullivan. The DHS uses the technology and has offered grants to state and local authorities to purchase and deploy video surveillance systems for homeland security applications. Under homeland security, video analytics software is mainly used to monitor security at airports, shipping ports and borders.

Major video analytics users also include border protection officers, who use the software to detect breaches or spot people in border areas, according to March Networks, a video analytics software provider. Critical facilities such as nuclear power plants, military installations and telecommunications hubs have a higher level of protection through video surveillance.

Video analytics also assist in all aspects of transportation safety, including security at airports, highways, and bus and train services. The software can identify and

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