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U.S. cities focus on spy cameras

The striking images of London subway bombers captured by the city's extensive video surveillance system and a rising sense that similar attacks could happen in the U.S. are renewing interest in expanding police camera surveillance of America's public places.

In the aftermath of the London bombings, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), a liberal with a strongly pragmatic bent, called for installing more cameras to monitor passengers in the New York City subway system.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams cited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to press for broader use of cameras, but his efforts to build a video surveillance system for downtown areas were curtailed by resistance from the D.C. City Council and some members of Congress.

Meanwhile, Chicago, which has the largest public video surveillance system in the country, is proceeding to expand its 2,000-camera network and is beginning to encourage businesses to provide the city live feeds from their surveillance cameras.

The London bombings showcased the capabilities of a digital video surveillance system. After the July 7 and July 21 attacks, authorities quickly produced relatively high-resolution images of the suspected bombers that benefited fast-moving investigations.

But to critics, whose reservations are based primarily on privacy concerns, the London attacks also highlighted the limitations of camera surveillance. London has one of the world's largest surveillance systems--the average person there is photographed by 300 cameras in the course of a day, according to a 1999 calculation by two British academics--yet that did not prevent terrorist bombings in the heart of the city.

"It's very difficult to make a case that the cameras are a deterrent to the most determined terrorists, those who intend to give up their life," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert for RAND Corp.

But even with suicide bombers, camera surveillance can help with the hunt for the terrorist cells that provide them crucial logistical support. Clues captured on video might assist in rapidly tracing a bomber's movements, possibly putting authorities on the trail of a previously undiscovered cell.

How cameras can help

"How did they come in? How were they dressed? What were they carrying? What did they look like?" Jenkins said, citing details cameras can reveal.

Even before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, technological advances were driving a rapid expansion in camera surveillance.

Digital cameras provide better-quality images. They are smaller and can be made less obvious. They cost less too, so authorities can buy more.

Cheaper computer capacity, more sophisticated software, fiber optic cable and wireless broadband combine to allow easier monitoring at remote locations, more extensive storage of images and rapid retrieval of crucial video images.

Looking to the future

Emerging technologies offer even greater promise, while advocates of camera surveillance argue that people have no legitimate expectation of privacy in a public place, civil libertarians raise concerns about possible abuses.

Critics contend that surveillance that can secretly store images of people creates a new potential for abuse, such as intimidation of political dissenters or blackmail of people caught stealing a kiss from the wrong person or entering a gay club.

"You have essentially imbued the police with Superman's powers," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology & Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "You have the problem that police officers who have access to this data inevitably abuse it."

At a minimum, there should be tight legal controls on camera systems monitoring the public, Steinhardt argues.

"We've got to put some chains on these surveillance monsters," he said.

Taken from a story by Mike Dorning for the Chicago Tribune.

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