July 11, 2013 By Adam Stone
Everyone has seen the video by now. The Boston bombers, dressed similarly, toting their backpacks through the crowd, one behind the other. With such a powerful visual cue, it’s easy to suppose that video played a crucial role in capturing the culprits.
That’s true to a certain extent, because video images led to quick identification. And then there’s the knee-jerk response: Let’s hang a video camera off every lamppost in every major city, at every big event. Let’s capture every face in the crowd and scan continuously for suspicious action.
And yet, most experts in the field are ambivalent. Is the technology good enough? Do we sacrifice too much liberty? Will the stuff even work? In a post-Boston world, video surveillance seems to raise more questions than it answers.
For some in public service the presence of video surveillance is an undisputed good. In the U.S. Park Police, Commander of Technical Services Dave Mulholland talks about cameras as a powerful force multiplier. Considering the budgetary constraints on boots on the ground, “this is something you have to do. It provides situational awareness. It provides you the opportunity to share with all your agency partners,” he said.
Since 2001, the Park Police has maintained video watch of the Lincoln Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge, which is anchored on public land. The service employs a hybrid system of CCTV on secure networks, along with tactical, mobile cameras feeding signal via the Internet. “That has opened up the possibility for me to now share those capabilities with other agencies,” Mulholland said.
These capabilities came into play during the Rally to Restore Sanity in October 2010 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. When an expected crowd of 60,000 swelled to several hundred thousand, Mulholland used video to watch for surges and possibly dangerous conditions to manage the oversized crowd.
“If something happens, we want to see it, so that we know what resources to send to the scene,” he said.
Beyond crowd control, public cameras also have been used as a means of crime prevention. The Urban Institute cites Baltimore as an example, with more than 500 cameras installed in high-crime areas, mostly in a 50-block area in downtown Baltimore. Roughly four months after cameras were installed downtown in 2005, crime dropped by more than 30 incidents per month on average.
A Coordinated Medical Response
The medical response for between 150 and 200 people who sought treatment immediately following the April 15 bombings was efficient for various reasons.
The challenge is sizable. For a given moment in time, law enforcement officers and investigators may be faced with terabytes of data from every conceivable source, from department store surveillance cameras to cellphone video to digital photographs. Popular perception has it that with sufficiently powerful software, law enforcement could sift through all this data at digital speeds and successfully identify specific persons or objects. Reality, however, suggests otherwise.
“The first thing you have to do is to accept the idea that CSI is not really real,” said Detective Sgt. Ret. James “Gator” Hudson, vice president of CrimeDex Services at video surveillance company 3VR. “No one does that in real life. You may have a chief of police or an emergency management person who thinks the camera is going to pick out the face of a terrorist in a crowd, but those kinds of things are almost impossible to do. So you have to set the bar at reality.”
We learned this after the Boston Marathon bombing, when Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told The Washington Post that the department’s facial recognition system hadn’t been able to identify the bombers, despite the fact that both had official driver’s license and immigrant records in the system.
If recognizing faces is problematic, the search for objects is no easier. “We want it to identify an object left behind in a crowded environment, but as much as we would like to be able to solve that problem, differentiating a bag left behind versus an airport patron standing two feet away from their bag — the false alarm rate is too high for effective management,” said Warren Brown, president of video technology provider ObjectVideo.
All over the country, community leaders are looking to boost economic development through various initiatives. One key element in many of those initiatives is the use of information technology. When local governments build IT infrastructure, create e-government applications, assist high-tech startups or otherwise focus on technology, they create conditions that draw businesses to their communities and help retain skilled workers. This paper discusses and provides examples of these various ways local government can use technology to ultimately make a community more attractive to businesses, visitors and residents.