D.C. cops build surveillance network

New system will link hundreds of public cameras. A camera mounted on the roof of police headquarters here peers down at pedestrians approaching the steps of the Capitol half a mile away. Then it zooms in on a couple who are climbing the stairs, unaware they are being watched. Inside headquarters, a huge digital image of the couple is displayed on floor-to-ceiling monitors in a darkened high-tech command center, the hub of what will soon be one of the nation’s most extensive public surveillance networks.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 — A camera mounted on the roof of police headquarters here peers down at pedestrians approaching the steps of the Capitol half a mile away. Then it zooms in on a couple who are climbing the stairs, unaware they are being watched. Inside headquarters, a huge digital image of the couple is displayed on floor-to-ceiling monitors in a darkened high-tech command center, the hub of what will soon be one of the nation’s most extensive public surveillance networks.

THE NEW SYSTEM will link hundreds of cameras that already monitor mass-transit stations, monuments and schools with new digital cameras that will be installed to watch over streets, shopping areas and neighborhoods.

“In the context of Sept. 11, we have no choice but to accept greater use of this technology,” says Stephen Gaffigan, who heads the Washington Metropolitan Police Department project. He says city officials have studied the pervasive public surveillance in Britain, where the government has placed more than two million cameras throughout the country in recent years. “We are intrigued by that model,” Mr. Gaffigan says.

Tuesday morning, in response to the latest terror alert issued by the Justice Department, Washington police activated the command center, which was first used on Sept. 11. Officers from a host of federal authorities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, Capitol Police and Amtrak Police, joined city officers in monitoring key buildings around Washington.

The room will stay in operation until federal officials end the terror alert, Mr. Gaffigan says. The cameras have been programmed to scan public areas automatically, and officers can take over manual control if they see something they want to examine more closely. But right now, the system has no “biometric” software that will permit an automated match between a face in the crowd and a computerized photo of a suspect. “We’re looking at that technology but have made no decisions” about how or whether to use it, Mr. Gaffigan says.

CIVIL LIBERTARIANS FEAR ABUSE

Many American police agencies already use some video surveillance of public spaces, particularly in areas with high pedestrian traffic, such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Ybor City entertainment district in Tampa, Fla. Around the country, airports, railroad stations and bus terminals are routinely monitored.

Some cities have also put cameras in busy intersections to gauge traffic or catch drivers who run red lights.

But the plans in Washington go far beyond what is in use in other American cities, and some civil libertarians are alarmed about the potential for abuse. “Technology is giving government what amounts to Superman’s vision,” says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and the advocacy group’s specialist on science and technology issues.

There are few legal restrictions on video surveillance in city streets, Mr. Steinhardt notes, because courts have generally found that people surrender their right to privacy by entering a public space. But by setting up a “central point of surveillance,” he says, it becomes likely that “the cameras will be more frequently used and more frequently abused.”

“It’s like the song by Sting where ‘every move you make, every step you take’ is recorded,” says Gary T. Marx, emeritus professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of several books on police surveillance. “Almost all of the surveillance innovations are easily justifiable,” he says. “The major concern is: Where is it leading?”

Eventually, the Washington system will bring together cameras operated by different agencies across the metropolitan area, potentially including video feeds from shopping malls, apartment buildings and other privately owned businesses. These images will be able to be viewed at the command post and broadcast to computer units already installed in most of the city’s 1,000 squad cars.

The police say they are aware of privacy concerns and plan to stop far short of the level of constant surveillance the technology allows. The cameras run by other agencies won’t be monitored by the police unless they are alerted to a specific problem, Mr. Gaffigan says, and the video feeds won’t be recorded unless there’s a particular reason to do so.

That doesn’t reassure everyone. “You are building in a surveillance infrastructure, and how it’s used now is not likely how it’s going to be used two years from now or five years from now,” says Mr. Steinhardt of the ACLU.

TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES EASE USE

While still expensive, advances in technology are making it easier for police to use video surveillance. Earlier technologies, such as the 36-camera system in Tampa, use analog videotape and are wired through fiber-optic cable. New cameras use digital images, which can be stored and manipulated more easily, and can be operated by radio commands and transmitted wirelessly, saving the cost of installing cable.

Moreover, analog cameras can now be routed through video servers that will convert their pictures into digital signals. “It makes use of existing infrastructure,” says Michael Engstrom, the U.S. general manager for Axis Communications AB, a Swedish manufacturer that supplied 50 video servers to Washington at a cost of about $2,000 each. “All you do is plug it into a computer network,” he says, and the images can be distributed “to the largest extent, over an intranet or even the Internet.”

The centerpiece of the Washington system is the $7 million control room called the Joint Operations Command Center on the fifth floor of police headquarters, a setting more “Star Trek” than “NYPD Blue.” The center has 40 video stations angled around a wall of floor-to-ceiling screens. The officer in charge sits in a command chair with a side-mounted teleconferencing screen built in. Other law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Secret Service, have their own stations within the center. Access is tight; a palm scanner controls who gets in. At Police Chief Charles Ramsey’s direction, the center is adorned with President Bush’s phrase for the war on terrorism: “We will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail.”

ROOTS IN IMF-WORLD BANK PROTESTS

Washington police first used video surveillance in April 2000, when cameras were installed temporarily to monitor street protests during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings that year, Mr. Gaffigan says. Police were pleased with the results and they began building the command center to further support video surveillance operations.

The department now has more than a dozen cameras mounted in downtown Washington, monitoring such sites as the White House, the National Mall and Union Station, as well as others attached to police helicopters. The system is designed to include more than 200 cameras in stations of the Washington Metro system, another 200 cameras in public schools, and 100 more planned for installation by the city traffic department at busy intersections. Twenty cameras operated by transportation officials in adjacent Maryland and Virginia also feed into the command room.

The next logical extension is into communities to aid our crime-fighting efforts,” Mr. Gaffigan says. The first neighborhood to add camera surveillance will probably be Georgetown, a shopping district popular with tourists and college students. There, says police Cmdr. Peter Newsham, merchants have proposed installing at their own expense a system of cameras that will feed into the police command center. Police say they expect other neighborhoods to follow. “People in England have easily adapted to it,” Mr. Gaffigan says. “There has not been an outcry about privacy there.”

Author: Jess Bravin

News Service: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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