Safety in numbers: protecting citizens with effective urban surveillance

Private businesses operate the vast proportion of CCTV networks today. To tackle crime and protect citizens more effectively, governments must collaborate with them and pool their resources, says Pervez Siddiqui at Genetec

Rebecca Lambert
Rebecca Lambert
By Rebecca Lambert on 03 February 2015
Safety in numbers: protecting citizens with effective urban surveillance

This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of OnWindows

A 2013 report by the British Security ­Industry Association (BSIA) revealed that ­privately-owned CCTV cameras outnumber those owned by the state by as many as 70 to 1. This means that day to day, the majority of security cameras watching us are not available to the government and law enforcement agencies for combatting crime and protecting citizens. Instead, they are busy working to protect their owner’s premises.

This is not just something that’s happening in the UK. Worldwide, surveillance continues to be led by citizens and private businesses, rather than governments.

According to Pervez Siddiqui, director of strategic markets at IP video surveillance specialist Genetec, what this ultimately means is that surveillance cameras are not being used as effectively as they could be.

“Many organisations have their own cameras, which enable them to carry out surveillance in areas under their direct control, but unless a network exists that connects many of these ­privately-owned cameras together, you’re not going to get a 360-degree view of what’s going on,” he explains. “Businesses, citizens and public organisations need to work together and pool their resources. After all, urban security is not the exclusive domain of law enforcement. Together, they can create a security network that, ultimately, helps to ensure citizen safety.”

Governments can also save costs at the same time. “Collaborations with the private sector ­allow them to take advantage of existing resources, connect them with their own investments and, ultimately, maximise their effectiveness,” says Siddiqui. “There’s no point in investing in individual cameras that all point in the same direction; when you don’t have sharing you have over investment.”

Examples of public/private surveillance partnerships do exist, and they’re growing daily. In Chicago, the state uses its own cameras, but it also taps into a network of cameras owned by other organisations. In a similar effort, ­Philadelphia has recently launched its SafeCam programme, which encourages private camera owners to voluntarily register their systems with the city. Already, the programme has helped local law enforcement officials track down many offenders. But, according to Siddiqui, initiatives like this are not happening often enough yet.

The problem, he explains, is that these types of initiative require strong leadership to make them happen – something which can be quite difficult when political terms change every few years.

“It takes a lot of work to bring a community together and the payoff in the near term isn’t always guaranteed,” he says. “Political leaders aren’t necessarily in power long enough to see the projects through, so the rest of the community needs to be involved too. It’s our challenge as a technology vendor to support them.”

In Brazil, Genetec is currently working with a neighbourhood association (Sociadade Amigos Vila Madalena) in Vila Madalena, an area in the western part of São Paulo, to build a monitoring centre that connects to public and privately owned cameras in the area, and links up with Detecta – a crime data aggregation and analysis platform developed by Microsoft, which is being used by the government of São Paulo to tackle crime more effectively.

Once it is up and running, the system will be capable of pulling together all of the live video feeds being streamed from hundreds of cameras in the neighbourhood, giving local authorities the information they need to respond quickly to emergency calls, map crime statistics, gather evidence and more.

For those looking to do something similar, Siddiqui highlights the importance of thinking long term. “There’s a lot of technology available on the market today, so it’s important to choose wisely,” he says. “It’s now very easy to collect lots of data, but you must also consider how you store it and sustain the funding to manage your security infrastructure as it grows. Don’t forget, if video evidence is used in court, it must be stored for a long time. Organisations need to be able to do that in a cost-effective manner, and they must be able to add functionality as their requirements change.”

Cutting across all of this, Siddiqui emphasises the importance of taking a proactive approach to privacy. “People are concerned about privacy, and rightly so. It’s up to organisations to properly communicate their intent and put in place the necessary audit trails and permissioning strategies,” he says. “Getting citizens on side also requires a more optimistic outlook. Today, when they think about urban security, a lot of people think that it’s about monitoring their movements and catching criminals; it’s a pretty dark story. The way I look at it is that surveillance opens up so many opportunities to improve the services that are being offered to citizens. Governments can use security systems to make environments safer, more vibrant, attractive places to live. It requires strong leadership to paint what the ­possibilities are.”

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