The announcement by New York City officials that they are planning a camera surveillance system for lower Manhattan modeled on London's so-called "Ring of Steel" is raising concerns among security and privacy experts. Many argue that the proposed network of up to 3,000 closed-circuit cameras will do little to prevent suicide bombers and will pose broad, perhaps unforeseen, threats to personal liberty.
In addition to detailing the networked cameras, the proposal suggests installing movable roadblocks that could be controlled from a central location and used to trap suspicious vehicles. "That idea reminds me of the 1960s movie 'The Italian Job,'" said Lauren Weinstein, cofounder of People For Internet Responsibility. "It was a remarkably forward-looking movie; thieves get access to a traffic control system and create a traffic jam to cover their escape. I can imagine some hacker creating massive gridlock in New York by tapping into the police roadblocks."
Given the track record of computer security over the past two decades, it's hard to argue with Weinstein's scenario, but it might be a while before the tempting target of playing electronic traffic cop is dangled in front of hackers.
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Although the first 115 cameras are scheduled to be in place by the end of 2007, installation of the entire system is slated to cost New York more than $90 million and it would not be operational until 2010.
The New York system would be the first in the United States to feed images from networked cameras to a central surveillance facility. Although there are currently hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras already installed in this country, most are operated by private companies as part of their individual security apparatus, and any potentially relevant video must be collected and analyzed individually by authorities.
The proposed system in New York would eliminate a lot of the legwork by having all of the video collected, stored, and analyzed in one location.
The ease and speed with which surveillance video can be analyzed is credited by London police with helping them track down the individuals who bombed the Glasgow Airport on June 30 and attempted to set off bombs in London the day before. Authorities said the surveillance system in London helped them track both the individuals and the vehicles involved in those attacks.
The average European is photographed or videotaped far more frequently than the average American, thanks largely to the different legal systems in the two regions (a fact that is somewhat ironic, given Europe's much stronger support for electronic privacy for individuals).
However, public surveillance systems have slowly been gaining ground in the United States, and the proposal in New York is the strongest indication that this country might be moving closer to Europe in the trade-off between protection and privacy.
Wildcards in this debate are the phenomenal advances occurring in surveillance technology. As cameras grow increasingly sharp-eyed and the software used to analyze and mine the video grows increasingly sophisticated, it is not difficult to imagine a time when protection effectively wipes out privacy.