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D.C. Forging Surveillance Network

Darrell Darnell, head of the D.C. homeland security agency, said the city is doing what it can to respect privacy while improving public safety.
Darrell Darnell, head of the D.C. homeland security agency, said the city is doing what it can to respect privacy while improving public safety.
By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post

The controversy has flared in the past. The D.C. Council drew up detailed guidelines for police security cameras after they were introduced downtown in 2001, including periodic audits of their operations.

Officials initially said the new system, Video Interoperability for Public Safety, would include the 92 D.C. police cameras. But Darnell said those cameras will stay under the control of police, who won't be able to tap directly into the new system. If the monitoring office detects a crime occurring, it can transmit video to police.

Courts have ruled that people have no right to privacy in public spaces. But civil libertarians and even security professionals worry about who is looking through the electronic eyes and how long they store the digital footage.

"If you're just saving it, at some point, this stuff is going to be posted to YouTube," said Frank Baitman, president of Petards Inc. of Baltimore, a developer of surveillance systems.

Problems also can occur when cameras installed for one purpose, such as crime prevention, are used for another. For example, in Tacoma, Wash., last year, there was an uproar when a high school official showed parents surveillance footage of their daughter kissing another girl.

Darnell said the city is sensitive to privacy concerns. The fact is, he said, the city has thousands of cameras in place. "Why wouldn't we want to use them in the most efficient and best way possible?"

Under the existing system, Darnell's office can request camera feeds from other agencies. But the procedure can be too slow in an emergency, he said.

The new system will also save money, cutting in half the $1.7 million the city spends annually to operate and monitor non-police cameras, officials say.

Currently, many of the city's cameras are viewed on site by security guards at city facilities. Some also are monitored by personnel at central offices in the agencies. A number of those employees will work at the new monitoring center. Security guards could be given other duties, Darnell said.

"We'd like to be able to do real-time monitoring, where we could prevent something from happening or get the police there quicker," Darnell said.

The new system will have three to five operators watching images from the cameras during each eight-hour shift, Darnell said. By year's end, analytic software is to be installed that can alert operators to potentially dangerous situations -- perhaps a fight or a person abandoning a suitcase.

Baitman, the security expert, questioned whether that size staff could prevent crime.

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