D.C. Forging Surveillance Network

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Privacy a Concern as 1st Phase Links 4,500 Cameras to Central Office

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008; A01

The D.C. government is launching a system today that would tie together thousands of city-owned video cameras, but authorities don’t yet have the money to complete the high-tech network or privacy rules in place to guide it.

The system will feature round-the-clock monitoring of the closed-circuit video systems run by nine city agencies. In the first phase, about 4,500 cameras trained on schools, public housing, traffic and government buildings will feed into a central office at the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Hundreds more will be added this year.

By making all those images available under one roof, officials hope to increase efficiency and improve public safety and emergency response. But civil libertarians and D.C. Council members say the network is being rushed into place without sufficient safeguards to protect privacy.

"The planning has been wholly lacking," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, who plans to hold a hearing on the project.

With its vast reach, the system underscores how security cameras have multiplied since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. By this fall, the District will have installed about 5,600 closed-circuit cameras, about triple the number it had in 2001. Tens of thousands of other cameras have popped up at monuments, banks, stores and other places.

Elsewhere, New York has announced a network of 3,000 public and private cameras to protect Lower Manhattan. Chicago’s emergency management office will soon have access to more than 6,000 cameras run by schools, police and other agencies.

The boom has been fueled by technological advances that make it easy to install cameras and search video. But U.S. cities — and D.C. government agencies — have varying rules on the cameras’ use.

The D.C. attorney general’s office is working on a policy to protect privacy rights, but it will not be completed by the system’s launch, said Darrell Darnell, head of the city’s homeland security agency. The agencies involved will follow their own rules in the meantime, he said. They vary on such matters as how long images are kept.

“We’re doing everything we can, humanly possible, to make sure we are respecting the rights and privacy concerns” of residents and visitors, Darnell said.

Civil liberties activists and some politicians worry about abuse.

"The new system is excessive in scope, with absolutely no safeguards for individual liberties," said Corey Owens of the Constitution Project, a bipartisan nonprofit group that wrote to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) expressing concern.

"Just to go forward without any real thought about byproduct effects and unintended consequences, I don’t think is a good idea," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

The controversy has flared in the past. The D.C. Council drew up detailed guidelines for police security cameras after they were introduced downtown in 2001, including periodic audits of their operations.

Officials initially said the new system, Video Interoperability for Public Safety, would include the 92 D.C. police cameras. But Darnell said those cameras will stay under the control of police, who won’t be able to tap directly into the new system. If the monitoring office detects a crime occurring, it can transmit video to police.

Courts have ruled that people have no right to privacy in public spaces. But civil libertarians and even security professionals worry about who is looking through the electronic eyes and how long they store the digital footage.

"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. of Baltimore, a developer of surveillance systems.

Problems also can occur when cameras installed for one purpose, such as crime prevention, are used for another. For example, in Tacoma, Wash., last year, there was an uproar when a high school official showed parents surveillance footage of their daughter kissing another girl.

Darnell said the city is sensitive to privacy concerns. The fact is, he said, the city has thousands of cameras in place. “Why wouldn’t we want to use them in the most efficient and best way possible?”

Under the existing system, Darnell’s office can request camera feeds from other agencies. But the procedure can be too slow in an emergency, he said.

The new system will also save money, cutting in half the $1.7 million the city spends annually to operate and monitor non-police cameras, officials say.

Currently, many of the city’s cameras are viewed on site by security guards at city facilities. Some also are monitored by personnel at central offices in the agencies. A number of those employees will work at the new monitoring center. Security guards could be given other duties, Darnell said.

“We’d like to be able to do real-time monitoring, where we could prevent something from happening or get the police there quicker,” Darnell said.

The new system will have three to five operators watching images from the cameras during each eight-hour shift, Darnell said. By year’s end, analytic software is to be installed that can alert operators to potentially dangerous situations — perhaps a fight or a person abandoning a suitcase.

Baitman, the security expert, questioned whether that size staff could prevent crime.

“There’s no way you could have someone watching 1,500 cameras, even with video analytics, and identify crimes,” he said.

The D.C. police usually assign two or three people to watch their cameras.

There is broad variation among video systems being developed in U.S. cities. New York, for example, envisions a mix of public and private cameras in its downtown system, linked to pivoting gates that could close off all or part of the financial district to block a suspicious car. Chicago’s system is focused on responding to emergencies, rather than routine monitoring, according to a spokeswoman.

The D.C. system is going ahead although it is not yet fully funded. The city has in hand $500,000 of the $9.6 million in homeland security grants it plans to use for the new network, Darnell said. He said that will be enough to get the project started, and the city is confident of receiving the other grants in coming months. They will be used for computer hardware, software and training.

The city will also kick in $886,000 a year, Darnell said.

In its start-up phase, the system will include the public schools, the D.C. Housing Authority, the Office of Property Management and the Transportation Department. By year’s end, it will expand to homeland security and the departments of Parks and Recreation, Corrections, Health and Fire and Emergency Medical Services. The schools have the largest number of cameras, about 3,600.

Workers will be cross-trained in the first 60 days to monitor various agencies’ cameras at the centralized office in Southeast Washington, Darnell said.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said this year that violent crime had decreased 19 percent near each of the police crime cameras, which were installed starting in August 2006. Critics have said the cameras simply displace crime to other streets, and they question the cost-effectiveness of monitoring them.

Staff writer Lena H. Sun and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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