May 2, 2013

Police, politicians push surveillance post-Boston

From coast to coast, efforts include trying to improve police access to business security footage and traffic cameras, as well as adding cameras in certain cities.

The Associated Press

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This Wednesday, April 24, 2013 photo shows transportation engineer associate Abeer Kliefe working at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control Center in downtown Los Angeles. In small towns and big cities, police and politicians are pointing to the surveillance video that was key to identifying the Boston Marathon bombing suspects as a reason to bolster their own networks and get more electronic eyes on their streets. In Los Angeles, a councilman wants police to broaden their network by giving them access to traffic cameras used to monitor the flow of cars on the road. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

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A remote camera for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation oversees traffic flow in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. A Los Angeles councilman wants the city to examine giving police access to the cameras, which would expand the LAPD's camera network from about 700 cameras to more than 1,000.


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"First, it's a deterrent and, second, it's evidence," Downing said, adding, "it helps us in the hunt and pursuit."

Law enforcement experts say police need these augmented systems because the bystander with a smartphone in hand is no substitute for a surveillance camera that is deliberately placed in a heavy crime area.

"The general public is not thinking about the kinds of critical factors in preventing and responding to crimes," said Brenda Bond, a professor who researches organizational effectiveness of police agencies at Suffolk University in Boston. "My being in a location is happenstance, and what's the likelihood of me capturing something on video?"

The U.S. lags behind other countries in building up surveillance. One reason is the more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies that each determines its own policy. Another reason is cost: A single high-definition camera can cost about $2,500 — not including the installation, maintenance or monitoring costs.

Law enforcement budgets consist of up to 98 percent personnel costs, "so they don't necessarily have the funding for new technologies," Bond said.

There are also questions about their effectiveness. A 2011 Urban Institute study examined surveillance systems in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, and found that crime decreased in some areas with cameras while it remained unchanged in others. The success or failure often depended on how the system was set up and monitored in each city.

While its deterrent effect remains debated, however, there's general agreement that the cameras can be useful after a crime to help identify suspects.

Cameras, for instance, allowed police in Britain to quickly identify the attackers behind the deadly 2005 suicide bombings in London. The country has more than 4.3 million surveillance cameras, primarily put in place after the IRA terror attacks.

Dozens are said to sit today around the house of George Orwell, the author of "1984," a story that foretold of a "Big Brother" society. Privacy advocates in the U.S. are concerned that the networks proposed by officials today could grow to realize Orwell's dystopic vision.

In recent years, traffic cameras used to catch scofflaw drivers running a red light or speeding have received widespread backlash across the country: An Ohio judge ordered a halt to speed camera citations, Arizona's Department of Public Safety ceased its program, and there have been efforts to ban such cameras in Iowa.

Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Domestic Surveillance Project, said the most concerning was an integrated network of cameras that could allow authorities to track people's movements.

Such a network could be upgraded later with more "invasive" features like facial recognition, Stepanovich said, noting that the Boston surveillance footage was from a private security system at a department store that was not linked to law enforcement.

In many cases, the public may not be aware of the capabilities of the technology or what is being adopted by their local police department and its implications, said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Unlike private security systems monitored by businesses or citizens' smartphones, Bibring said, a government-run network is a very different entity because those watching have "the power to investigate, prosecute and jail people."

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