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Post 9/11, surveillance cameras everywhere

Millions of security cameras have been installed in the U.S. since Sept. 11, but experts say they are more often used for other purposes besides tracking terrorists.
Image: CCTV camera image from London riot
Police in London used images such as this one, taken from surveillance cameras, to try to identify rioters in London last month.Metropolitan Police / AFP

When riots broke out in London this month, it didn’t take long before police began using security cameras to identify the alleged thugs.

And when a little boy went missing in New York City, security cameras were quickly used to track his last movements, although they didn’t end up saving his life.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the market for video surveillance cameras boomed in the United States and around the world. Shocked by the worst attack on U.S. soil in 60 years, everyone from small-business owners to executives of giant multinationals rushed to get advanced security measures in place.

A decade later, there haven’t been any more major terrorist attacks in the United States, but there are an estimated 30 million more security cameras. Instead of being used to prevent terrorist attacks, experts say cameras are more often used for mundane purposes like nabbing criminals or calling out bad behavior at the office — if they’re used at all.

Of course the use of security cameras predated 9/11, but the market exploded in the fear-tinged months following the attack. A wave of new security businesses sprang up, and existing security providers rushed to land new government and corporate contracts installing security systems.

After 9/11, many companies realized for perhaps the first time that they could be vulnerable, said Ray O'Hara, president of the security industry trade group ASIS.

“There was a lot of money spent right after 9/11 to upgrade corporate facilities,” said O’Hara, who is also an executive with the security firm Andrews International. “From a reactionary standpoint when you just sat there for a second and said, ‘Could this happen in Los Angeles?’ And (you realized) the answer is yes.”

The attacks coincided with technological advancements that made it much cheaper to install and monitor surveillance cameras, allowing even small businesses and private residences to afford such protections.

Market research firm IMS Research estimates that more than 30 million surveillance cameras have been sold in the United States in the past decade. Video surveillance alone is a $3.2 billion industry, representing about one-third of the overall security market, according to 2007 figures from the Security Industry Association, a trade group. That was the last time they gathered such data, a spokesman said.

Gregory Spear was one of those who saw opportunity soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He founded Spear's Security Industry Analyst to provide investors with information about the growing field.

After a burst of business in the first five years after the attacks, Spear said business slowed substantially, at least in part because no terror attacks occurred. Some security firms merged or went out of business, and the industry has stabilized in the last few years, he said.

Business has stayed stronger outside the United States in countries such as Israel, he said.

“You get attacked all the time in Israel, and you don’t get attacked in Manhattan,” Spear said.

Still, the panic lasted long enough to create the increasingly accurate perception that there is a camera on every corner, and it’s now rare to enter an office building without seeing some evidence that you’re being watched. Few people are surprised to have their photo snapped when they walk into a building for a business meeting, or to have their identification photocopied just to meet a friend for lunch.

A decade ago, those same visitors likely would have been waved through by a bored-looking security guard, if there was any protection at all.

Other uses
Although advanced security measures are now commonplace, they are rarely being used to nab would-be terrorists. Instead, security cameras often serve other purposes, such as catching students or workers who are misbehaving, or tracking down common criminals.

In London — where outdoor security cameras have long been more common than in U.S. cities — police have posted screen grabs from security cameras onto a Flickr page, in the hopes that ordinary citizens will help them catch looters. The police have been assisted by civilian efforts such as the “catch a looter” Tumblr blog.

Video cameras also were used to track the movement of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, the Brooklyn boy who was killed earlier this year while walking home alone.

The increasing prevalence of security cameras, often assisted these days by facial recognition software, have raised thorny privacy questions as Americans find their images captured with increasing regularity.

But in the fearful days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people were much more likely to say that invasion of privacy was worthwhile because it also made us feel safer. Now, the advent of social networking means people have just grown more accustomed to living their lives in a more public way.

“I think that as we transition forward, the openness in our society — with the Facebooks and the social networks and what have you — is going to prevail because that’s the way we’re going to live,” said O’Hara, the security executive.

Privacy advocates warn that we may be too complacent about the fact that our pictures are being taken everywhere from the department store checkout counter to the high school hallway, as well as shared freely on social networks. That data can potentially be used by everyone from marketers to police investigators.

“I do think it’s really important when we think about that question of where those data go in the world of social media,” said David Lyon, a professor of surveillance studies at Queen’s University in Canada.

Experts also warn that surveillance cameras — while perhaps the most obvious way in which our movements are tracked — are far from the only way personal information is now collected. In the wake of Sept. 11, and thanks also to technical advances, it’s become far more commonplace for companies to use devices such as keystroke trackers, which monitor everything you type on your computer.

“One thing that changed was that there was a new emphasis on attempting to obtain as much information as possible,” Lyon said.

And while security cameras are everywhere, security companies increasingly are looking at the less visible threat of cyberattacks.

“Today’s buzzword is the cyber-issues. There’s just no doubt about that,” O’Hara said. “We used to worry about people coming over the fence. Now that’s probably the least (of what’s on) our minds.”