Smile! You’re Probably on Camera

High-tech surveillance networks are getting bigger and smarter

22 May 2013

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? If you’re shopping, strolling down the street, or driving in or out of a city, you’re probably correct. Surveillance cameras in major cities like London and New York City can be found almost everywhere you look—and they’re getting more sophisticated.

London is perhaps the most-watched city in the world. In 1998 the city installed a so-called “Ring of Steel” surveillance system, which has grown to include nearly a half million cameras, automatic roadblocks, and license-plate readers that enable authorities to track anyone going into or out of the city. However, some question the cameras’ effectiveness in solving crimes. London’s system cost nearly US $800 million over the last four years, but in 2008, only one crime was solved for every 1000 cameras, according to a recent article on CNN.com.

To safeguard against future terrorist attacks and to reduce crime, New York City beefed up its surveillance system in 2007. Taking a cue from London’s Ring of Steel, the city now operates nearly 4000 security cameras and license-plate readers in lower Manhattan alone, which are monitored 24 hours a day by the New York Police Department. The cameras use face- and object-detection software, which can detect unattended packages and track cars in addition to keeping an eye on pedestrians.

Facial-recognition software is increasingly being used by law enforcement officials to obtain and analyze information about the people who are being filmed. Software can be used to determine their gender, approximate age, and other demographic information based on the geometry of their faces. This information is stored in a searchable database.

The growing number of hidden cameras has raised privacy concerns—many view these high-tech security networks as eerily similar to those described in George Orwell’s “1984,” a science fiction novel depicting, among other things, omnipresent surveillance as a form of government control. Some are concerned that if these networks of cameras can be linked together then the government can secretly track people as they travel from city to city. There’s also the possibility that authorities could rely too much on facial recognition software and misidentify a crime suspect—after all, computers make mistakes too.

However, in a world where terrorist attacks, shootings, rapes, and other violent crimes seem to be increasing every year, many people view surveillance systems as a kind of security blanket. Footage of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on 15 April, for example, were captured by surveillance cameras, as well as photos snapped by numerous bystanders. It took the FBI only three days to sift through the mountain of images and release photos of the two suspects, which were taken by a department store’s security camera.  

Farhad Manjoo, a blogger for Slate.com, views this incident as a perfect example of why we should embrace cameras as an effective tool to help the authorities solve crimes and catch criminals. He argues in a recent blog post that devastating terrorist attacks around the world have essentially turned many public places into fortresses: “Now it’s impossible for you to get into tall buildings, airports, and even some museums and concerts without being subjected to pat-downs and metal detectors,” Manjoo writes. “When combined with competent law enforcement, surveillance cameras are more effective, less intrusive, less psychologically draining, and much more pleasant than these alternatives.”

Does the presence of surveillance cameras in public places make you feel safer, or do you feel like your privacy is being invaded?

Photo: Baris Simsek/iStockphoto

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