As the investigation into the failed Times Square bombing revealed, security cameras are everywhere. But studies show they may not be so effective.
The recent investigation into the failed Times Square bombing revealed the widespread use of security cameras.
Studies have shown that video cameras are not very effective in reducing crime.
Security cameras nonetheless continue to multiply in cities across the country.
Smile, because you're on camera -- a lot.
In their search for the would-be Times Square bomber last weekend, detectives turned to footage from more than 80 of the video cameras that keep watch on the busy neighborhood. In the process, the search renewed concerns about the widespread use of security cameras in New York City and beyond.
Invasion of privacy is perhaps the biggest concern for many people, who wonder how records of their own activities might eventually be used against them. At the same time, studies suggest that video cameras -- while a valuable tool in some cases -- often fail to live up to their crime-thwarting reputations.
"The Times Square thing has brought into relief the perception that cameras provide a huge benefit," said Jeff Moss, member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and founder and director of Black Hat, the prominent information security conference.
"Generally sprinkling cameras around society and hoping they reduce crime is a reaction of people wanting to do something visible and claim they've done something useful, but they don't," he said. "Cameras tend to push crime away from cameras."
It's hard to know exactly how many security cameras the average person encounters each day or how much of your life ends up on film. But it clearly happens a lot.
Video surveillance is routine in banks, casinos, convenience stores, office buildings, coffee shops, sports events and ATM machines. Cameras monitor traffic congestion, street corners, subway entrances and front yards. They're run by cities, police departments and private citizens. And their numbers have soared, especially since 9/11.
In New York City, five volunteers from the New York Civil Liberties Union spent five months strolling the city's streets in 1998. That year, the team counted 2,397 video surveillance cameras visible from street level in Manhattan. In a 2005 survey, the NYCLU counted 4,176 cameras below 14th Street alone -- more than five times as many cameras as they spotted in that part of the city seven years earlier.
It's not just a New York issue. Around the country, police departments continue to put millions of dollars of federal grant money into beefing up their video surveillance systems. The list includes Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, along with smaller towns in Rhode Island, Virginia and elsewhere.
As cameras continue to multiply, a growing number of studies are questioning how effective they actually are at keeping us safe. Cameras certainly help in some situations, Moss said. They can, for example, identify stolen cars entering a highway tunnel, wanted criminals entering a hotel lobby, and cheaters at a casino.
If the images are clear enough, camera footage can help investigators piece together a crime after the fact.
Mostly, though, studies across the country have failed to document significant drops in crime after the installation of video surveillance systems. And even though police looked to videos of Times Square in their recent investigation, it was tips from vendors and good old-fashioned detective work -- not cameras -- that lead them to the bomber.
"The question is not if video surveillance is ever going to be helpful because it obviously is sometimes," said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. A better question, he said, is whether security cameras are the best way to spend limited resources.
"Video is something you can show on television or in movies, and when video does solve a crime it ends up on TV so people see it," said he added. "But cutting community policing funds in order to spend millions of dollars on cameras is probably not a smart thing to do if we want to increase safety."
As cameras with new detection technologies become increasingly interlinked and centralized, there is also an increasing risk for voyeurism and other abuses. For now, there are few legal restrictions on who can put up cameras or where, and there is no legal obligation to tell people that cameras are pointed at them in public places.
"There is always an impulse that we can just tape everything and we'll be safer but that assumption doesn't hold up," Stanley said. "We need to ask a lot of tough questions about whether these investments in camera technology make sense for us."