CCTV and the Maximum Surveillance Society

We are living in a ‘maximum surveillance society’, says Clive Norris, professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield. From the moment we step outside of our homes, he writes in his book of the same name, our activities are monitored by a vast army of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras – in the street, on public transport, in business premises, in government buildings.

No one knows exactly how many, but 10 million would be a low estimate for the number in operation in the UK given that the country accounts for one-fifth of all CCTV sales worldwide. Anyone travelling through an urban area can expect to be captured on CCTV up to 300 times a day.

For some, that level of observation represents an unacceptable breach of the individual’s right to privacy and can lead to undesirable levels of social control, discrimination and exclusion.

Others argue that CCTV is vital for deterring and detecting crime, for managing traffic and crowd flow, for monitoring industrial processes and for many other business and state activities. Indeed, it is difficult to question CCTV’s effective use in major criminal investigations when it has helped identify the murderers of Liverpool toddler James Bulger, the bomber of Soho’s Admiral Duncan pub, and, most recently, the terrorists who attacked London in July.

In practice: City of Westminster Council

London’s borough of Westminster may have only 230,000 residents but as a major centre of commerce and tourism its population swells to around 1.1 million people on a typical weekday. That creates some unique security challenges.

To address some of those, Westminster City Council has been working with network systems supplier Cisco on a wireless CCTV network across the Soho district with the aim of reducing and detecting crime and ensuring streets are clean.

IP-based WiFi cameras on lampposts and building facades enable council employees to monitor the cramped streets and alleyways of Soho that are not already viewable via existing analogue CCTV cameras. The initial pilot demonstrated that WiFi could provide good-quality camera images at 750 Kbit/s – that is just 10% of the capacity needed for traditional CCTV.

Networking giant Cisco also created a web-based management system for Westminster City Council so that cameras could be controlled remotely by an operator using a PC and a mouse.

The network even made it possible to view the live CCTV stream and control cameras via a mobile response unit, such as a CCTV van within the wireless area. “In this way, a CCTV van becomes a kind of VCR on wheels. That really helps us, because crime patterns tend to change, especially once it becomes known that a particular area is under tight surveillance,” says Rob McAllister, CCTV manager at Westminster City Council.

WiFi devices will connect to the network using the 802.11b wireless standard but there are plans to switch to the more advanced 802.11g protocol in order to maximise performance.

“The key advantage from a Wi-Fi network camera compared with a fixed camera system is purely the mobility, and being able to be flexible enough to deal with crimes in certain areas directly at the times that you need it,” says McAllister.

Shifting responsibility

To date, CCTV has been part of a standalone surveillance system, associated closely with physical security. But now responsibility for the purchase and management of CCTV systems is shifting at many organisations from facilities management or security teams to the IT department. The reason is simple: like corporate telephony before it, CCTV camera networks are going digital and will increasingly be adapted to run over the IP (Internet Protocol) network that is the domain of IT professionals.

A 2004 survey by networking company Axis Communications found that 50% of new CCTV systems are being integrated with computer networks, whether for viewing, transmitting or storing captured CCTV footage. It is hardly surprising then that more than a quarter of the survey’s respondents (28%) said that, when it comes to physical security, purchasing decisions are now in the hands of the IT director.

IP-based surveillance offers a number of advantages over older, analogue CCTV systems. In many cases, analogue cameras need to be linked to a control room using a dedicated and costly coaxial cabling network – and installing those cables can be laborious and highly disruptive. Images, meanwhile, are captured on video cassettes that are time-consuming to search, are overwritten after a given period and take up a lot of valuable storage space. Finally, in the event of a suspected crime, images can only be shared by making those tapes physically available to the authorities – and that option is sometimes undermined when criminals locate and destroy VCRs and tapes that are operating close to the cameras.

In a pure IP-based system, by contrast, CCTV images are transferred to disk storage systems directly from IP addressable cameras over standard Ethernet cabling. Images can then be searched more easily and shared, when necessary, with third-party agencies over networks. Centrally based software, meanwhile, enables each camera to be controlled remotely by security teams via standard PCs and laptops.

At networking equipment giant Cisco, for example, security managers are able to view cameras based throughout the company’s sites in Europe, the Middle East and Africa from a central security control centre at its regional headquarters at Bedfont Lakes, near Heathrow or by logging on to the system through a remote laptop, says Steve Frost, the company’s business development manager for IP video communications.

Not only that, but the new generation of IP-based CCTV cameras are more sophisticated than the analogue devices they are beginning to replace. Early CCTV cameras were large, conspicuous, low-definition black and white systems with few facilities for zooming or panning. “Modern IP-based CCTV networks use small, high-definition colour cameras that can focus on minute details,” says Ken Sutherland, corporate director at IP surveillance specialist Telindus Surveillance Solutions. “And by linking the control of the cameras to a computer, specific objects can be [outlined and] tracked semi-automatically,” he adds.

That sophistication is growing all the time, says Rob Healey, marketing manager at CCTV camera manufacturer Panasonic. “For example, newer cameras can track movement across a scene where there should be no movement; they can lock onto a single object in a busy environment (such as an item of unattended luggage) and can send an alert to the controller if it is not removed in a set period of time,” he says. As a result of computerisation, this tracking process can also work between disparate cameras and managers can be notified instantaneously when a predefined event occurs. They can then log on to the system remotely and see what is happening in their offices and businesses in real time.

Capturing CCTV images in electronic format also enables companies to integrate them more easily with other data sources. “In the past, CCTV was very much an information silo. If it sits on the IT network, however, it can give you a more inclusive surveillance solution,” says Dominic Berger, managing director of Venue Solutions, a specialist software company that provides CCTV management software to sporting venues, entertainment and leisure complexes and shopping centres.

In some retail environments, for example, CCTV images are integrated with data from electronic point of sale (EPOS) systems, enabling retailers to analyse cashier behaviour. That can quickly bring fraudulent employee behaviour to light, including the practices of ‘sweethearting’ (where an accomplice works with an employee to pass items through the till at lower or nil cost), ‘voids’ (where the employee renders a cash transaction void and pockets the money) and fraudulent returns or refunds (where items are pulled from stock and fictitious refunds are given to accomplices).

IP-based CCTV networks also support WiFi cameras, enabling organisations to place wireless IP devices in areas where it would be difficult if not impossible to run cable. “Cameras at multiple locations are simply connected to wireless devices known as ‘subscriber units’ which send the image data back to a wireless ‘base station’ located on the users’ main network. If needed, high performance point-to-point solutions can be used to connect to a remote base station, giving extended reach kilometres from the main network itself,” says Anthony Fulgoni, sales manager for the UK and Ireland at networking specialist Proxim.

Management issues

IP surveillance creates a number of issues for IT managers – not least of all establishing water-tight ‘quality of service’ levels that ensure that the transfer of CCTV images over the IP network is reliable and does not interrupt other critical voice and data flows.

Getting the most from IP-based cameras also relies on the deployment of sophisticated, server-based software at the control centre. “Such software products allow reduction of human intervention in video surveillance,” explains Frost & Sullivan analyst Soumilya Banerjee. “Preset algorithms and easy user-defined policies reduce the requirement of security personnel in the monitoring station, allowing them to either be relocated on site, outside the monitoring station or dispensed with entirely, depending on the type of premises under surveillance.”

In addition to a reduction in the cost of managing CCTV, other advantages offered by IP surveillance software include better alarm rates, easy retrieval of video information, improved video content analysis and enhanced system health management, says Bannerjee.

The arrival of IP-based CCTV software is also encouraging the development of add-on applications, such as automated car number plate recognition and directly integrated biometric technologies such as facial recognition technology, says Neil Cornish, director of IBM business at systems integration specialist Morse.

But the stream of digital images produced by IP-based CCTV cameras is forcing organisations to establish policies about how much they should store and for how long, say executives at storage giant EMC. Hoping to capitalise on that management issue, in August 2005 the company launched the EMC Surveillance Analysis and Management Solution (SAMS), a combination of hardware, software and professional services that enables the storage, archiving, fast searching and analysis of vast quantities of video and other data generated by physical security devices such as surveillance cameras and access control systems. Customers want to be able “to aggregate surveillance information from multiple sources, offering integrated digital intelligence gathering and real-time response to problem situations,” says Derrell James, EMC’s senior vice president of technology solutions.

If he is right, IT will spend the next few years getting comfortable with the new role of managing IP surveillance services. And that may be a steep learning curve.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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