Lessons from London

British knight expounds on public city surveillance
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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

BERKELEY, Calif.--Sir Chris Fox called video analytics “the key to the future” in public city surveillance during a presentation here at the ADT Media Event.

Fox’s perspective on public video surveillance in public areas has been honed over a 34-year career with British law enforcement. He coordinated the national police operations in response to the London subway bombings and also organized the security operations for the 2005 G-8 Summit in Scotland.

“We caught all of those [involved in the bombing], and quickly, because of the cameras,” Fox said. The police were also able to catch co-conspirators by going back over video to see who was with the bombers when they were in the Underground in the days and weeks before the bombing. The process, however, was very time consuming. “It took 24 officers watching video for a week for almost 24 hours a day,” Fox said.

As analytics get more sophisticated and easier to use, tasks like this will be considerably easier, he said.

What about public objection to surveillance cameras? “Brits don’t like surveillance,” he said, but in Great Britain the cameras are called “community safety cameras.” Fox said that stuck and “it’s a good thing because it helps people understand the intention of the cameras.”

Until the past few years, however, there’s been very little objection to cameras in public places. And they’ve proliferated rapidly from 1967, when they were first used in retail shops, to 1996 when there were approximately 500 cameras in London. Today, the number of cameras in London is estimated to be 4.2 million.

Historically, towns were required to come up with plans to reduce crime, so it was the general public, rather than government entities calling for cameras.

“People wanted cameras and they still do,” Fox said. In recent years, however, there have been some concerns over privacy and, as a result, Great Britain has come out with a number of guidelines for the retention of video and access to the video.

Fox closed with some guidelines of his own for cities that are considering installing video surveillance systems.

One definite must is that video systems should be “redeployable,” he said. With apologies to manufacturers who would like to sell additional systems, Fox said, “the best value for local authorities is to be able to take down cameras from one area and put them back up again.”

Also, the city should have clearly defined goals about what they expect to achieve from the system.

“What does success look like?” Fox asked. A manufacturer may define success as “a good installation,on budget, on time,” but municipalities need to look beyond that.