Private Surveillance of Public Spaces

By Ethan Ace, Published on Feb 21, 2012

While public surveillance systems get most of the attention, private surveillance cameras surely solve far more crimes than public ones. This is not only inevitable but perhaps even a growing trend featured in recent news articles [link no longer available], in some cases even encouraged by police. Indeed, cooperation between public entities and private surveillance systems is increasing.

In this update, we examine the drivers of this trend, potential issues, and considerations for those evaluating deployment of private systems such as these.

Background

Even large municipal systems with millions of people typically have no more than thousands of public surveillance cameras. By contrast, private organizations, whether retailers, businesses or homeowners likely have ten times the amount of cameras monitoring public areas (sidewalks, streets, intersections, parking lots, etc.). This is inevitable as suveillance cameras have become standard in most private organizations.

Drivers

Relative to public systems, we see two key drivers for the increase in private surveillance systems:

  • Reduction in public budgets: The post 9/11 public surveillance spending bubble has largely popped, leaving many municipalities without additional funds and limiting the reach of systems which have been implemented. Encouraging homeowners and neighborhood groups to fund surveillance systems is a logical action for municipalities.
  • Reduction in cost of surveillance systems: Historically, even low-cost DVRs and IP cameras have been more expensive than is palatable for most residential users. However, with the quality of low-cost gear improving, and prices continuing to come down, more homeowners are looking into installing their own systems.

There are a number of factors which must be considered in these public/private partnerships, to protect privacy, respect policy, and keep the system workable.

Who Has Access?

First and foremost is the question of who has access to live and archived video, and when. In the case of a single private residence, this is pretty cut and dry: the homeowner has complete control over these decisions. Homeowners may still wish to inform police they have installed a surveillance system, along with their contact information, for investigative purposes. Some police departments track this information, so they know where cameras are located in the area of a crime, for potential investigation.

In the case of neighborhood associations, the issue of access becomes more complex. In one case, neighborhood members planned to watch each others' cameras, installed on separate surveillance systems. In some cases, the organization may choose to install a single large system, giving access to multiple members. In still other cases, the group may instead fund cameras being added to a municipal surveillance system.

There is no right answer to who should have access to these systems. It depends on factors such as the relationships between neighbors and between neighborhood groups and the police. It also depends on the technical competancies of all parties involved. In general, however, we would imagine that police departments with public surveillance systems may desire access to at least some of these cameras to bolster their own system, depending on quality and location. This presents the issue of compatibility, however.

Compatibility

If entities other than the homeowner plan to view a private surveillance system, compatibility is a concern. With so many low-cost DVR and IP camera brands available, monitoring multiple systems can very well require a difference client for each. For neighborhood groups who wish to view cameras from multiple residencess (such as this group in New Orleans), or for police departments who wish to have access to residential systems, this is a major issue.

This is one area where IP cameras have an advantage over DVRs. Very few VMS platforms allow for viewing of video from DVRs, and typically those that do are integrated more to higher-end units, not recorders which would be likely to fit into residential spaces. In contrast, most VMS systems support hundreds of models of IP cameras, and models which aren't supported may often be integrated via generic drivers or RTSP streaming.

Realistically, it is extremely unlikely that any platform will support 100% of devices which the user may want to view. PSIM is regularly put forward as a solution to these problems of interoperability, but with budgets shrinking, driving this trend, and PSIM routinely priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it seems an unlikely solution. Lower-cost PSIM offerings such as SureView's Immix may be justifiable, if the gain in camera coverage warrants it.

Maintenance

We suspect that many homeowners may be unaware of the need for ongoing maintenance of their surveillance system, instead thinking of the system as set-it-and-forget-it. This reduces the chances of usable video being provided. Domes and camera housings get dirty. Lens may lose focus over time, and cameras may drift from their original position. Hard drive failures may go undetected. All of these factors must be considered, or the system is reduced to little more than good intentions.

Bypassing Public Policy

While most issues in this discussion are of a purely technical nature, one major political issue exists. With police encouraging homeowners and other groups to install cameras on private property, concerns have been raised about these systems bypassing public policies which have been put in place, governing camera placement, use, and retention times. It is doubtful that most municipalities have any policies governing private use of surveillance. This raises the question of whether police agendas are being forwarded through private means, with cameras deployed where they were previously denied, or prohibited by policy.

On the flip side, this also raises the question of how much authority government holds over surveillance systems installed on private property. Commercial entities have generally been unregulated in their use of surveillance systems. A change in policy for residential systems, due to this increasing trend, may lead to decisions affecting all private surveillance systems.

Moving Forward

We believe that installation of surveillance systems on private property, yet monitoring public areas, will continue to grow. Ultimately, this can be a good thing. Cooperation between public and private entities serves as a sort of force multiplier, with surveillance systems potentially deterring criminal acts, and assisting in investigations. However, care needs to be taken in deciding who has access and when, and to ensure that the spirit of policies governing surveillance is respected.

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