Instant Guide

Can surveillance cameras trap terrorists?

Though a security-camera clip proved a false lead in the Times Square bomber case, New York's investing millions in new surveillance networks.

Security cameras monitoring Times Square caught footage of an unidentified man walking away from the explosives-laden car left there late Saturday evening — a clip that was widely distributed and scrutinized until the search for the bomber concluded with last night's capture of a different suspect, Faisal Shahzad. Here, a brief instant guide to New York's surveillance cameras — and whether or not they make us safer.

How many surveillance cameras monitor the Times Square area?
At least 82 city-owned security cameras, plus countless private ones. All nightclubs, for example, are required by law to post security cameras at their doors and exits. 

How many in Manhattan as a whole?
Estimates run into the tens of thousands. After attempting a 2005 tally, the New York Civil Liberties Unions (NYCLU) concluded there were "too many to count." The NYCLU spotted 4,176 cameras in the area below 14th Street. More cameras are on the way: The city spent $90 million beefing up its monitoring network by 4,000 cameras in Lower Manhattan after 9/11, and has just announced a $24 million expansion of the network to cover midtown, including Times Square.

How does this compare to other cities?
Both Chicago and Washington, D.C. are reputed to have more cameras than New York, while London installed over 500,000 cameras in response to I.R.A. bombing campaigns in the 1990s. 

Do the cameras actually help prevent attacks?
That's a topic of much debate. "There really isn’t a downside to it," says a security expert, quoted in The New York Times, of the security network planned for midtown (which will eventually use license plate readers to track suspicious activity — drivers who circle a particular area, for example). The next car-bomb attempt, he predicts, "may not get this far because of the technology.” Some critics, however, dismiss the technology's value in preventing attacks. "Video camera surveillance is not a magic bullet," says a report by the NYCLU. "Cameras cannot prevent bad things from happening." Though London's omnipresent security cameras did not foil the 2005 terrorist attacks on the city's subway system, they did help subsequently identify the bombers.

Why do we need them then?
To discourage lawlessness, generally. As the Chicago Tribune puts it, equipping police to review street activity helps reduce crime in the monitored areas and
"catch bad guys after the fact." Studies have found that crime rates drop up to 15 percent in areas with security cameras, according to the Washington Post.

Aren't there privacy issues?
Inevitably. NYCLU filed a lawsuit against the NYPD in 2008 for failing to disclose how its surveillance network will impinge on the lives of ordinary "innocent" citizens. The city's police force famously taped a couple having sex on a New York rooftop during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

What does the public think?
A 2006 Harris poll found that two-thirds of Americans generally favor expansion of security camera networks, though 75 percent also registered concerns about civil-liberties precautions. If cameras can be demonstrated to combat terrorism, approval will only go up. In the case of the Times Square car bomb, however, eyewitnesses remain the more traditional heroes.

Sources: The New York Times, New York Civil Liberties Union, Washington Post, Slate, Chicago Tribune


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