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Boston Attacks Inspire Use of Surveillance Cameras in Cities Nationwide

May 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Surveillance cameras near the site of the Boston bombings helped authorities quickly identify and find the suspects. Those events have sparked a push in cities nationwide to increase their use of cameras. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from San Francisco on how police are utilizing surveillance as prevention.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The investigation into the Boston bombings has sparked a new interest in the use of surveillance cameras in cities around the nation.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our report.

SPENCER MICHELS: Americans are used to being watched on closed-circuit TV. Cameras are ubiquitous, especially in large cities.

The video surveillance industry brings in $3.2 billion dollars a year, and it’s expected to grow quickly, especially after the Boston Marathon bombings. At one business in San Francisco, 22 cameras continually watch employees and guests enter and leave the building and drive their cars into and out of the garage. It’s all recorded for future use.

A guard monitors the cameras in real time, and one night recently, those cameras caught this scene: a woman employee going to her car on the street while a male watches her and starts to follow. As he circles back to her car, for some reason, he sees other vehicles approaching and he makes a quick exit.

Would the cameras have helped had there been a crime? Could their more obvious presence have prevented one? It’s all part of today’s debate over surveillance.

POLICE CHIEF GREG SUHR, San Francisco: So, if you could have a bird’s-eye view.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco’s police chief, like many throughout the country, is convinced that cameras can make a big difference. And these days, they are pointing to Boston and the identification of two suspects as an argument to expand their use.

Chief Greg Suhr has made a controversial plea to the Board of Supervisors for increased camera surveillance of his city, especially along the route of upcoming races and parades, starting by finding what already is in place and what isn’t.

GREG SUHR: We want to map all the cameras up and down Market Street. In Boston, they went through hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of video and were able to make that case in days.

SPENCER MICHELS: In an interview, the chief told me video evidence is almost expected these days.

GREG SUHR: Everybody likes video. Juries like video. Investigators like video. Prosecutors like video. And I think, in looking at the Boston Marathon, they made that case off of video.

So I proposed that we find out what we have, both private and public, along our main parade route and see if we can’t identify the blind spots.

SPENCER MICHELS: What the chief is concerned about right now is security for a series of popular upcoming events, the Bay to Breakers, a colorful footrace from the bay to the Pacific Ocean which attracts thousands of runners and perhaps 100,000 spectators and where backpacks were recently banned. The Pride March that every year features gays, lesbians, transgender, bisexuals in outlandish costumes traipsing through the city before a big audience, demonstrations surrounding the contentious issues of same-sex marriage and immigration, which take place frequently in the Bay Area, and the America’s Cup races, this summer in the bay, with thousands expected to watch from the shore.

The city is gearing up for these events with bomb-sniffing dogs and help from the FBI, but police say they welcome any assistance. For all the cameras on its streets, most in high-crime areas, San Francisco does not allow real-time monitoring of city-owned surveillance cameras. The video can only be viewed afterwards if there’s a crime.

But after Boston, the chief wants to modify that policy for big events. And that has set off a debate.

GREG SUHR: That would be another set of eyes. I mean, obviously the packages in the marathon were on the ground for a period of time, and they went undetected.

SPENCER MICHELS: But that’s real-time kind of monitoring, which you say that you’re not allowed to do.

GREG SUHR: My ask would be that we go away from the city policy where we don’t monitor in real time where we have tens of thousands of people and the crowds along our major parade routes. These events are on television regardless.

SPENCER MICHELS: After Boston, surveys show that 70 percent of Americans support surveillance cameras as a way to reduce crime.

HAZEL PAYNE, San Francisco: It’s a great thing if you’re able to catch somebody on those. I mean, I would have no problems with them. As long as you’re not doing anything that is illegal, I don’t think there is an issue. And most of the time, I’m unaware that they’re even there, so I think it’s great.

SPENCER MICHELS: But not everyone is so comfortable with the chief’s proposal.

SELLASSIE BLACKWELL, San Francisco: I think he’s already watching us enough, you know what I mean? Look at all these cameras. Like, me and my brother was just chilling. They watching us over here with the camera. We’re just standing on the wall just talking, enjoying the day, and because of the cameras, they said move. So, it can be bad, and racially profiling at the same time.

SPENCER MICHELS: American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nicole Ozer is also worried about cameras invading privacy in a politically active city where that has long been an issue.

NICOLE OZER, American Civil Liberties Union: Cameras are ripe for abuse. They’re taking footage of people engaged in political protests. Cameras don’t prevent terrorism. They don’t reduce violence. Cameras didn’t prevent or reduce violence in London. They didn’t prevent or reduce violence in Boston, and it’s essential that we not trade our privacy and free speech rights for just the illusion of safety.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ozer maintains that San Francisco’s cameras installed to prevent crime, like those in many other cities, have not achieved their goal. And she cites a study made by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, led by assistant professor of information Deirdre Mulligan.

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN, University of California, Berkeley: What we found in San Francisco with respect to this set of cameras is that they didn’t have the desired effect, which was really about reducing violent crime.

And one can imagine, if you deploy cameras, for example, to deal with terrorists, many terrorists are planning to die anyway, right, and the fact that they’re being filmed in their moment of martyrdom isn’t really going to deter them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mulligan contends the police can’t rely on cameras.

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN: You need people on the ground. There are millions of backpacks, right? And knowing when somebody puts down a backpack and whether or not that’s a suspicious activity when you’re miles away in a camera booth and you have been watching footage for eight hours that day is really a tall order.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, in the face of such objections from civil rights advocates, the police chief is not backing down. Chief Suhr sees video technology as promising.

GREG SUHR: They have cameras now that are so sophisticated that they have video analytics on them where you can say things like, a package cannot be on the ground for more than 30 seconds, and the camera will actually box the item and send off an alert to whoever is monitoring the cameras

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s the kind of techniques they’re developing at 3VR. Using computer programs, they can search large quantities of video looking for people, or cars, or objects without someone actually looking at the screen for hours.

DALE SMALL, Project Manager, 3VR: It would allow you to cut down on your search time exponentially, by the power of 10.

SPENCER MICHELS: And it’s all done by the machine, by the computer?

DALE SMALL: Yes, that’s correct.

SPENCER MICHELS: I don’t have to look for this guy. Oh, there he is, there he is.

DALE SMALL: Correct.

Once we have his facial biometric parameters captured, it’s indexed within our database. Then we match similarities to that facial profile, if you will, and bring up all the similarities to that face.

SPENCER MICHELS: And they can do the same thing with suspect cars that are recorded on a given street, using color, size and direction to make the match.

Joe Boissy, 3VR’s marketing officer, says the potential is great.

JOE BOISSY, 3VR: A computer vision algorithm allows you to understand the pixels, the frames, what’s happening in that video, and from that extract the information that you need, such as the facial characteristics, the license plate itself, the color, the height, the age, the gender. Any kind of demographics of individuals can also be extracted from the video.

SPENCER MICHELS: But warns Boissy, even his company’s software can’t be expected to work wonders.

JOE BOISSY: The reality is when you watch “24,” when you watch “CSI,” you have an ideal situation. I find a guy, going to run facial recognition, find him.

This is theory and fiction more than reality. The reality is that, in certain conditions, yes, it is easy. With the right lighting conditions, yes, you can do that. But most of the cases, you have situations where are not ideal, but still enough to help you out going into your search in a much faster way.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, San Francisco is already gearing up for the Bay to Breakers race on May 19th. The police won’t be able to make any changes by then, but the chief hopes to finish his mapping of surveillance cameras, public and private, by the end of June, when the big Pride Parade marches down Market Street.