Surveillance City

  • Posted 05.30.13
  • NOVA

In this interview with The World's Marco Werman, NOVA Producer Miles O'Brien describes how surveillance footage played a key role in cracking the case of the Boston Marathon bombings. But as O'Brien discovered in the course of reporting the NOVA special "Manhunt—Boston Bombers," other cities, especially New York City, have surveillance camera networks that are far more advanced than Boston's hodgepodge system. O'Brien recounts just how powerful those systems are and what that may portend for privacy in the future.

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Surveillance cameras in Singapore Enlarge Photo credit: wongjunhao/Flicker (CC-BY-NC-ND)

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Producer Miles O'Brien is interviewed about state-of-the-art surveillance systems and what they portend for privacy.

Marco Werman: Police in Boston knew from the start that video evidence would be key.

Miles O'Brien: I spoke to the Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, and within ten minutes of the bombing having occurred, he had a detective going up and down Boylston Street right there by the finish line, grabbing video individually from each of the businesses that had security cameras. And it raises an interesting point—you would think in our day and age that the surveillance apparatus in a city like Boston would be network-connected and monitored in some control room somewhere. Not so! It requires a fair amount of shoe leather just to acquire the video and then bring it in. It's a very manual process.

Marco Werman: You indicate in your doc that the investigation could have gone even faster if Boston had some of the stuff that New York City has. They've got this domain-awareness system—it's kind of a war room—where police can watch and monitor video from thousands of cameras across the city in real time. You were there. What happens there? What's going on?

Miles O'Brien: This is one-of-a-kind in the world. When we think CCTV cameras, we think of London, which has by far the most cameras per square inch of any city in the world. However, they're not networked in a very cohesive way. What New York is trying to do is take the cameras that exist—soon to be 6,000 cameras—feeding in to the lower part of Broadway to a command center [and] into a system they call "domain awareness." What they have done in conjunction with Microsoft is build some software that does the looking for them. And it does any number of things. It scans every license plate that comes across the bridges and tunnels into lower Manhattan [and] checks it against the terror watch list. It has the ability to flag suspicious behavior.

"To the extent that we allow ourselves to creep into this Big Brother-esque police state, I think we head down a slippery slope and we end up at the end of the day, if we don't watch it, in a world where, yeah maybe we're safer, but do we really want to live in that world?"

If somebody leaves a bag on the sidewalk for any unusual period of time—whenever, they wouldn't tell me how long it is for security reasons—it will flag that. It has the ability, if I tell it, "I'm looking for somebody wearing red within three blocks of the New York Stock Exchange right now," in two seconds it will give you a search of every camera that indicates someone wearing red in that vicinity. It also has the ability to go back as far as thirty days on any given camera.

Marco Werman: "Domain awareness" reminds me of total information awareness. I mean some of these technologies make you worry about Big Brother watching you. How worried should the public be, at a civic liberties level, by the creepiness of what these technologies can achieve?

Miles O'Brien: I can't tell you how many times the chills went up and down my spine, Marco, thinking about all this. When you think about—put it all together—the facial recognition, the domain awareness—I'm afraid we have allowed our fear to create an apparatus which is bordering on Big Brother. In the end, I think we all have to think about what the real antidote to terrorism is—not to let the terrorists win, not to be scared. And to the extent that we allow ourselves to creep into this Big Brother-esque police state. I think we head down a slippery slope, and we end up at the end of the day—if we don't watch it—in a world where, yeah maybe we're safer, but do we really want to live in that world?

Marco Werman: As the U.S. is cooperating with other countries sharing intelligence—Russia, in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers—are many of those countries also equipped—as equipped—as the U.S. with these kinds of technologies, and does it matter right now?

Miles O'Brien: Well, what matters most is the connection between the countries, right? What you saw in the case of Russian-U.S. interchange was a lot of miscommunication. You know, one of the questions that I haven't gotten to the bottom of—and it's not an easy one to get to—is, how many times do Russian authorities, Russian spies, call up their American counterparts and say, "Hey, we got this Chechen you should be watching." Now, if they do that twice a month and Tamerlan Tsarnaev slipped through the cracks, there's a problem. If they do it 4,000 times a month and he slipped through the cracks, that's an entirely different story. And you can imagine a world where the Russians would like to point a finger to the Chechen national and give him trouble somehow, wherever he may be—the U.S. or elsewhere. So I think it's really important that in a perfect world it'd be great if we all talked and communicated and shared this stuff. I don't think we're ever going to live in that world.

Marco Werman: Science journalist Miles O'Brien is a reporter for the special NOVA presentation called "Manhunt—Boston Bombers." It airs tonight on PBS. Miles, thanks a lot.

Miles O'Brien: It was a pleasure, Marco. Thank you.

Find more of The World's ongoing coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Interview of Miles O'Brien conducted by Marco Werman on May 28, 2013.

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