Times Square bombing attempt reveals limits of video surveillance

By Joby Warrick, Peter Finn and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A20

With 82 city-owned surveillance cameras and scores of private ones, New York's Times Square may well be among the most scrutinized patches of real estate on Earth. So when a bomb-laden Nissan Pathfinder rolled into the famed plaza Saturday evening, it was inevitable that multiple cameras would pick up the sport-utility vehicle as well as the fidgety middle-aged man who was seen standing near the car, stuffing a shirt into a satchel.

Within 24 hours of the incident, the replaying of video footage of the car and the man, later deemed a "person of interest," would testify to the spread of surveillance networks established throughout the city in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Elected officials seized on the foiled attack to press their case Monday for hundreds of additional cameras for New York, one of several U.S. cities to champion video monitoring as a means of thwarting terrorists and reducing crime.

Yet, the attempted bombing also revealed the limits of the technology. Critics of the surveillance networks, including many civil liberties groups, noted that the cameras had neither prevented a potentially deadly terrorist attack nor led investigators immediately to a perpetrator. And city officials acknowledged that the "person of interest" -- a balding man whose video image was seen by millions over the weekend -- may not have had anything to do with the attempted bombing. Late Monday night, a suspect was arrested in the case, though it was not clear whether he was the man in the video.

That man "could be totally innocent -- it's one of the first videos that we obtained," New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a CNN interview. "He was taking his shirt off, but it was a warm day."

Police were expected to unveil what they described as a more illuminating video that appeared to show the Pathfinder's driver running away from the vehicle. "We obtained that from a tourist," Kelly said.

New York's renewed push for expanded surveillance has fueled a growing debate over whether the installation of large video networks is worth the cost, in both public treasure and the intrusion on private lives. In Britain, perhaps the most video-surveilled country in the world, a top law enforcement official described the embrace of surveillance as an "utter fiasco."

British authorities, eager to ward off Irish Republican Army attacks in the 1990s, installed more than 4 million cameras, a quarter of them in London. In certain parts of the capital, it is estimated that a person who works in the city is captured by more than 300 cameras on any given day.

But Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of the visual images unit at New Scotland Yard, said in 2008 that cameras had helped solve only 3 percent of street robberies in London. He and other British critics have cited studies showing that footage from street cameras is often poor and that police officers resist the tedium of trolling through reams of images to solve routine crimes.

"Billions of pounds has been spent on it, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images and how they will be used in court," Neville said.

Supporters of the British system note that video surveillance has helped crack high-profile cases, including identifying terrorists who attacked the London subway system. In response to Neville's comments, Scotland Yard said that closed-circuit television systems, or CCTV, were effective.

"We believe that CCTV is an important tool in protecting the public both as a deterrent and in the investigation of a wide range of crime from 'minor' offences to terrorism," the agency said in a statement.

In the United States, some studies suggest that crime is reduced by up to 15 percent in areas with camera surveillance, said David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Study Center at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. But Lyon said the gains are most pronounced in certain environments where cameras are most effective -- especially parking lots.

"You'll find that camera surveillance in fixed sites with clear sight lines and relatively little movement, such as parking lots, tend to have a pretty high success rate in detecting unusual movement," Lyon said. "But really, parking lots are the prize case."

The Las Vegas Strip, the famed four-mile stretch of casinos, may be home to more security cameras per square foot than any airport or sports arena in the country. In Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, cameras used to monitor large intersections and busy highways help police reconstruct accidents and crimes. "Having surveillance cameras is great in that it does help you to catch criminals," said Tony Lake, a security consultant and former chief constable of Lincolnshire, England.

But in the United States, as in Britain, privacy rights advocates say the evidence linking video cameras to lower crime rates is ambiguous at best. In some cities, surveillance networks are initially embraced, only to suffer from falling support after residents fail to perceive improvements in security, said Simon Davies, director of London-based Privacy International.

"If you asked people five years ago 'Will databases solve a problem, will cameras cure a crime?' a lot of people would have said yes" Davies said. But now, he said, "you're hearing a level of cynicism that hasn't existed before . . . because people are reading more stories about the failures of technology."

New York officials have shown no signs of remorse. After installing hundreds of video cameras in the city's financial district after 2001, the city has committed to spending $110 million to add video cameras in Midtown Manhattan.

"This is a function that government should provide," New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) said Monday at a news conference in the Bronx.

Staff writers Peter Finn and Ellen Nakashima and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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