Visualizing The Future


Surveillance is an extremely popular subject in movies, starting with the James Bond series. The Bond movies have introduced the public to a slew of gadgets used by spies, everything from the pen camera to computer simulations of advanced weapons systems.

Video surveillance is particularly controversial, and the subject has even been labeled "Big Brother." It seems video cameras are mounted everywhere, in banks, casinos, grocery stores, shopping malls, train stations, airplanes and airports and even on street corners.

The private detective is a popular character in movies, using a variety of surveillance devices to spy on cheating spouses, shady deals, and murder plots.

Video surveillance began with simple closed circuit television monitoring. As early as 1965, there were press reports in the United States suggesting police use of surveillance cameras in public places. By the 70s, closed circuit television (CCTV) systems were watched by officers at all times.

Video cassette recorders revolutionized the surveillance industry. Analog technology using taped video cassette recordings meant surveillance could be preserved on tape as evidence.

Video surveillance systems are used to monitor traffic flow as well as a means of capturing traffic offenders. Through the 80s and 90s, more businesses began installing systems, from corporate offices to mini-marts. TV shows like Cops and FBI's Most Wanted continuously replay crimes and criminals captured on tape, or digitally.

The Rodney King beating became controversial largely because it was captured on film, even though it was not a true act of surveillance.

The insurance industry found video surveillance very useful in worker's compensation fraud, bogus accident claims and a variety of other insurance fraud cases. Such video surveillance can help keep liability insurance premiums down by cutting out fraud. Fraudulent types claiming disability think twice now that video cameras can capture them living life as usual, such as the loss of using one's legs, meanwhile captured on film dancing at a party.

Video provides more compelling evidence in marital affair and abuse cases than still photos. Videos can show a sequence of events clearly tied together, whereas still photos are more subject to interpretation. For instance, in an abuse case, a still photo might capture an enraged father with his arm stretched out and fist clenched. But without evidence of victim and the victim being struck by the abuser, it's left to a jury to decide credibility.

There still remains the problem of owners and employees of various businesses forgetting to replace tapes on a daily basis, or reusing tapes and erasing what might have proved to be damaging evidence in a criminal trial. Some poor quality systems also produce poor quality film, where it's hard to tell just exactly what is going on.

The Charged Coupled Device camera (CCD), which uses microchip computer technology, is one way to solve the problem. Surveillance is possible in low light and at night.

Digital Multiplexing units enable enabling recording on several cameras at once (more than a dozen at time in some cases. Digital multiplex also adds features like time-lapse and motion-only recording, which saves a great deal of wasted videotape.

Credit card theft is so rampant, video cameras are now installed at nearly every ATM across the United States and in most parts of the world.

Because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, surveillance has become a national priority. The downside is the issues of the use of illegal wiretaps and other surveillance tactics and the invasion of privacy. CCTV or video taped surveillance systems are now used to cover major sporting and other events that could be potential targets for terrorist attacks.

Digital video surveillance is fast replacing analog. Much longer periods of time can be recorded on a single hard drive, with image resolution much clearer. Digital images can also be manipulated easier, like adding light, enhancing the image, or zooming in on details.

Video (analog and digital) surveillance cameras are increasingly being installed in public buildings, housing projects, and parks and street corners to curb crime, particularly drug selling and prostitution. Political rallies, parades and other festivals are also targets for surveillance coverage.

Surveillance became personal with recent stories about abusive or negligent nannies, baby sitters and housekeepers. Digital cameras and webcams are now so small they can be hidden anywhere.

Software developers have refined programs that enhance video surveillance, like facial recognition programs that compare various key facial feature points to mug shots or photographs of terrorists or criminals. Face recognition software installed on video surveillance camera systems are increasingly being installed in such places as the Statue of Liberty and throughout all the casino/resorts in Vegas.

The Sydney International Airport in Australia is one of the first airports to install SmartGate, an automated border crossing system used for all airline crew members. Using photo biometrics, the video surveillance systems scans the crew member's face and compares it to the passport photo, confirming a match in less than ten seconds.

Schools are increasingly installing face recognition video surveillance for tracking missing children and registered sex offenders, but not without controversial right to privacy detractors.

The internet has enabled video surveillance to be installed virtually anywhere and be watched from anywhere in the world. Satellites enable images to be viewed on laptops. The eye in the sky is a reality with digital streaming video.

Morality aside, technology used in current surveillance systems is the same technology used in webcams used by amateur pornographers. Webcams are set up to watch an individual engaged in every activity from brushing teeth to having sex.

Because of the Internet and digital technology, cameras can stream video 24/7 and be monitored via remote.

The speed of new photo-capture devices is taking surveillance to a new level. With a Smartphone, pictures can be taken and then sent to the police, all within seconds. Nearly everyone has a cellphone, and cellphones are fast morphing into all-in-one-devices. Law enforcement agencies are especially interested in integrated devices where still and motion imagery can immediately be matched against face recognition software.

Another downside of digital surveillance capability is that whatever technology is available to law enforcement agencies is also available to criminals and terrorists. How these devices are used depends on the ingeniousness of criminals, and many criminals are increasingly becoming quite tech-savvy.

The FBI falls under closer scrutiny than other law enforcement agencies, largely because of their aggressiveness and willingness to break into homes, offices, hotel rooms and vehicles. Computer files get copied. Hidden cameras are installed. Microphones record conversations meant to only take place in the bedroom. Agents are known to have pried into safe deposit boxes, watched from afar with video cameras and binoculars and intercepted e-mails. The question is: who exactly is under surveillance?

Paparazzi don't behave much differently, except they are after sensationalism and not crime.

Sometimes the FBI is backed by the courts, sometimes it isn't. The secretive nature of the FBI--and the CIA--is certainly the subject of numerous spy and crime novels and movies. One of the most popular authors in the 21st century is John Grisham, who claims in a Forward in one of his books that he knows nothing about the spy business.

Continued public outcry against improper or illegal invasion of privacy is not helping the FBI much in pursuing suspected criminals and terrorists. Stories abound of average citizens being spied on for no apparent reason. Myth or fact, the stories do well to generate suspicion and fear.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in 1978 and revised after 7/11 by the Patriot Act, has given investigators a potent arsenal against "agents of a foreign power." The now current President Bush (as of 2006) is under attack for allowing such investigations to go too far.

The right to privacy of communications from electronic surveillance (such as bugging and wiretapping) is protected by several federal and state statutes and by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But like all other matters of law, surveillance cases are subject to interpretation. With technology becoming more advanced and accessible, what constitutes surveillance is questionable.

There is no end to the use of surveillance. Nations spy on other nations. Governments spy on their citizenry. Law enforcement agencies spy on criminals. Criminals spy on their victims. Paparazzi spy on celebrities. Private detectives spy on cheating spouses. Corporations and businesses spy on employees. Schools spy on children while administrators spy on teachers. Parents spy on their children and the next door neighbor.

The use of surveillance--possible because of optics technology-based devices--is as much of a past time now as a baseball game on Saturday. We spy on each other not necessarily because we are looking for any wrong-doing, but just because we like to watch each other.

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