Big Brother Watching? Cities Add Cameras

Three years after London's ubiquitous hidden cameras helped capture the July 7, 2005, London subway bombers, Washington, D.C., is modeling the United States' largest and most elaborately networked city surveillance system on that British network.

Surveillance cameras are now nearly inescapable, capturing baggage handlers who moonlight as thieves in Phoenix and elsewhere, in businesses like the Sarasota, Fla., car wash where Joseph Smith was captured on tape abducting 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, whom he was convicted of murdering. And most famously, in London, where surveillance video helped track down the subway bombers of 2005.

When George Orwell wrote "Big Brother is Watching" in the presciently dystopic novel "1984," he wasn't paranoid -- just early.

Some 20 years after 1984, there are half a million government surveillance cameras in Orwell's one-time home of London, the most monitored city in the world. Other cities are now following suit. There are 3,000 in New York, 2,000 in Chicago, and in Washington, D.C., there are some 5,200 surveillance cameras trained on citizens, and more on the way.

The camera systems have become more popular because cities can put up as little as 10 percent of the cost -- federal Homeland Security grants pay the rest. But Washington's city council is locked in a vigorous debate over whether to accept the $9 million federal contribution to the city's proposed $10 million program, due to privacy concerns.

With thermal imaging and powerful zoom lenses that can peer into windows, civil libertarians fear abuses, like the time police, monitoring the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, repeatedly trained a thermal imaging camera away from the convention and onto a couple in a passionate embrace on a nearby rooftop.

"There is no other system in the U.S. that has that extensive network of cameras," said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union.

City surveillance cameras have been positioned on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the nation's capital for years. The city now links its cameras in a centralized network as no American city has ever done before, from schools, housing projects, public buildings and city roadways. Some worry it's gone too far.

One reason for the concern is the finding in a London study that the cameras help catch criminals, but fail to cut crime.

"Cameras don't work," Steinhardt said. "They don't prevent crime, they rarely solve it."

"We can't let the genie back in the bottle, we just have to figure out how to manage and control it, and do it in a way that addresses those concerns," said Washington City administrator Dan Tangherlini.

Washington officials say that, by having all the city's cameras centrally monitored, they'll be better able to track criminals across town. They also hope to prevent abuse -- by watching the watchers.