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Gotham's Sky Spies: Surveillance network expands in Manhattan

US News | July 16, 2007
Alex Kingsbury

Plans to network together thousands of private and public video surveillance cameras in New York City have been in the works for years. Yet it was only this month, in the wake of the attempted bombings in London, that those plans took on a new sense of urgency. By the end of the year, Gotham officials say, the surveillance system will have hundreds of cameras scanning Lower Manhattan, watching tunnels, bridges, and the thousands of cars and people that move through the country's financial hub. The new network is raising perennial questions over the balance between New Yorkers' civil liberties and the powers of law enforcement.

The British government installed a similar system in London in the 1990s, designed to deter Irish Republican Army attacks. Christened the "ring of steel," the system in reality proved to be more of a Maginot line in terms of preventing attacks. The IRA was not deterred, nor was an al Qaeda-style group in 2005 when bombers struck the city's mass transit system. Yet the systems have proved invaluable in reconstructing terrorist attacks and, in the case of the failed car bombings this month, in tracking down suspects.

New York's Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says that the system, when complete, will incorporate 1,000 public and 2,000 private cameras, electronic license plate readers, and a 24-hour command center to monitor the many tireless electronic eyes. The system will also include remote-controlled movable barriers that could be used to isolate or redirect traffic in the event of an emergency. The new system carries an estimated price tag of $8 million for the first year. "We are determined to prevent another attack," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Congress last March, "and we are sparing no expense."

Officer down. But cameras are not new to New York, nor is using private cameras in police investigations. Long before 9/11, there were hundreds of police security cameras around New York—one New York Civil Liberties Union report counted more than 2,300 visible from street level in 1998. There are now more than 4,200 cameras south of 14th Street, according to the report. In 2003, the NYPD began installing more cameras in high-crime neighborhoods under a pilot program. There are now more than 120 cameras in that system throughout the five boroughs, and hundreds more are planned.

Officials credit that system, combined with increased officer presence, with an 18 percent reduction in major felony crimes and a 22 percent decrease in shooting incidents in the first four months of 2007. Indeed, the very day that the specifics of the new ring-of-steel plans were announced, two NYPD officers were shot by a suspect fleeing a traffic stop in Brooklyn. The incident was caught by three separate, private security cameras in the area, which aided police in the hunt for the suspects.

Civil liberties advocates remain critical of the expansion of camera surveillance, raising questions about the nature of the private-public coordination of the cameras and rules for oversight. "At a very minimum, there should be strict procedures to delete old security tapes and ensure that there can't be unauthorized access to the system," says Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State who specializes in technology and privacy issues.

The NYCLU, meanwhile, cites anecdotal evidence of camera operators becoming voyeurs and police abuse of surveillance during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Also during that year, graphic footage of a suicide captured by a police surveillance camera mounted in a Bronx housing project appeared on a website featuring violent images and pornography. A police officer was later accused of leaking the tape. "Especially when private systems are incorporated into a police network, questions have to be asked about what rules govern those private actors," says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.

Even supporters of the camera systems acknowledge that their network is unlikely to prevent a determined criminal, especially one willing to commit a suicide attack. Insurance companies, some of the keenest risk assessors, also don't see the camera systems as significantly lowering the risk of an attack, in terms of lower premiums at least. And there hasn't been much vocal public opposition to cameras either. "The horse is way out of the barn—New York is a camera town," says Lieberman. "But it happens so incrementally that maintaining safeguards is even more important."

This story appears in the July 23, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.

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