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Wanted: More surveillance

With 82 city-owned surveillance cameras, Times Square may well be among the most scrutinised patches of real estate on Earth.

world Updated: May 05, 2010 01:06 IST

With 82 city-owned surveillance cameras, Times Square may well be among the most scrutinised patches of real estate on Earth. So when a bomb-laden Pathfinder rolled into the plaza on Saturday, it was inevitable that cameras would pick up the vehicle as well as the middle-aged man who was seen standing near the car.

Within 24 hours of the incident, the replaying of video footage of the car and the man, deemed a “person of interest,” would testify to the spread of surveillance networks established throughout the city. Officials seized on the foiled attack to press their case for hundreds of additional cameras for the city.

Yet, the attempted bombing also revealed the limits of the technology. Critics of the surveillance networks noted that the cameras had neither prevented a potentially deadly attack nor led investigators immediately to a perpetrator. And city officials said that the “person of interest” may not have had anything to do with the attempted bombing.

“He could be totally innocent — it’s one of the first videos that we obtained,” NY Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

New York’s push for expanded surveillance has fueled a debate over whether the installation of video networks is worth the cost. In Britain, perhaps the most video-surveilled country in the world, a law enforcement official described the embrace of surveillance as an “utter fiasco.”

British authorities, eager to ward off Irish Republican Army attacks in the 1990s, installed more than 4 million cameras.

But Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of the visual images unit at New Scotland Yard, said in 2008 that cameras had helped solve only 3 per cent of street robberies. “Billions of pounds has been spent on it, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images...,” Neville said.

However, Scotland Yard said that closed-circuit television systems, or CCTV, were effective. “We believe that CCTV is an important tool in protecting the public...,” the agency said.

In the US, studies suggest that crime is reduced by up to 15 per cent in areas with camera surveillance, said David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Study Center at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. But he said the gains are most pronounced in certain environments where cameras are most effective — especially parking lots.

“You’ll find that camera surveillance in fixed sites with clear sight lines and relatively little movement, such as parking lots, tend to have a pretty high success rate in detecting unusual movement,” said Lyon.

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