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Citizen Surveillance Is Playing A Major Role In Terrorist And Other Criminal Investigations

As surveillance technology has spread from security cameras to smartphones in every pocket, it has sparked privacy concerns. At the same time, the technology has proved helpful to criminal investigations–including the one focused on the Boston Marathon explosions. Citizen Surveillance Is Playing A Major Role In Terrorist And Other Criminal Investigations

On Wednesday, a government official said the Federal Bureau of Investigation used surveillance video from a Lord and Taylor department store and restaurants near the bomb site, as well as photographs from average citizens, news organizations and others to help identify a suspicious person at the marathon.

That followed officials earlier in the week asking the public to share digital video and photos, which the FBI processed along with surveillance-camera footage from businesses near the finish line. Investigators planned to go through “every frame of every video,” Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said.

The use of such technology in the Boston investigations highlights how, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the adoption of surveillance technology and the amount of data gathered has grown considerably. Still, video and photo facial-recognition technologies remain in their infancy.

From 2011 to 2016, the global market for video-surveillance technology is expected to nearly double to $20.5 billion, according to IHS IMS Research. According to Forrester Research, 68% of public-sector and 59% of private-sector companies have adopted video-surveillance technologies–and 9% plan to adopt it in the next two years. Moreover, more than a billion people now carry a basic tool of surveillance in their pockets: camera-equipped smartphones that connect to the Internet. 

Combining forensic image data from professional and personal sources has worked in previous cases. After the 2011 riots in Vancouver, British Columbia, authorities used nearly 1 million digital images and 1,600 hours of video gathered from the public and closed-circuit cameras to identify criminal acts and eventually bring charges against more than 200 people.

Challenges remain to making use of all the new data. Facial recognition is often difficult to use in large-scale investigations because surveillance footage rarely has full-frontal images, which are needed for computers to identify enough key points on a face.

“It’s not the way it is in the movies,” said Aki Peritz, a former counterterrorism analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, now senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way, a Washington think tank. “In real life you don’t have someone looking directly into the camera, and the ability to make a match can be very much degraded if you don’t have a full frontal.”

Then there is the challenge of collecting and sorting through the data. Boston has one of 77 nationwide intelligence “fusion centers” that is involved in helping investigators in this week’s bombings to pool data and conduct analysis, said Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. The state-run centers were funded by the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 attacks to address the lack of interagency information sharing.

The centers allow authorities to tap thousands of law-enforcement data sources, along with public data such as information from credit agencies, said Mr. Sena. But the system is still hampered by having data stored in separate systems that can’t easily communicate. For example, classified reports from different federal agencies can’t be accessed on the same machines, he said.

Last year, the Senate subcommittee on investigations released a report questioning the effectiveness of the centers in fighting terrorism and protecting privacy.

Citizens also play a role in investigations, with the growing culture of crowdsourcing. Users of online discussion board 4chan sifted through photos and spotted a man seen at the marathon finish line wearing black pants, a black shirt and a white hat. That man appeared to bring a backpack to the race, but it seemed to be gone later.

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston formed a 10-person social-media research team to run a similar project, scheduled to launch Thursday, which would allow people to upload photos from the attack and tag clues. They said they plan to continue their project even if a suspect is found.

How A Community Uses Already-in-Place Camera Systems To Partner With Police For Solving Crime

It involves getting people and places with security cameras to register them with the city.

“We’ve been working on this for awhile,” said Bisceglie, who is overseeing the STS ( Security Through Surveillance )  efforts. “There is so much out there in the community; and by knowing where cameras may be, it will help us make better use of them.”

Helping Police:

As the STS Web page notes, “When a crime occurs, a resident or business may unknowingly record the crime, possible suspects, or an escape route the criminals used. If private surveillance cameras are not registered, the information captured is often lost to law enforcement personnel.”

It also notes that police won’t have direct access to footage captured on private property. Rather, such a registry should help police become better aware of where cameras are throughout Elgin.

“If a crime occurs in the vicinity of a residence or business with registered cameras, the police department will contact registrants to request a copy of their footage for evidence or investigative leads,” the page states.

Bisceglie said work also would involve drawing up floor plans of where cameras are in buildings and dwellings, to further hone what details that might be available to help police working crime as well as missing persons and traffic cases.

Bisceglie said that pretty much every day, patrol officers make requests to see if there is any video available of incidents to which they respond.

Sparking the boom on the private surveillance side is a dramatic drop the last five years in the costs of quality equipment, Bisceglie said.

Clancy recalled that when he began working surveillance, a computer and processor cost $3,800 – compared to the $300 smartphone he now has that is more powerful than the aforementioned system. Likewise, Rouse noted that surveillance camera systems for homes and businesses that used to cost more than $1,000 now can be had for as little as $300 to $400.

Both detectives also pointed out, however, that while technology is rapidly advancing, crime is neither solved as quickly as – nor with the ultra-sophisticated equipment seen on – TV crime shows.

Stay Safe:

Rouse stressed that while police will use private smartphone-made photos and videos, he doesn’t encourage people to put themselves in harm’s way by doing so.

Still, he noted that camera phone recorded evidence has come in handy in local cases, particularly ones involving juveniles who have made habits of posting details both good and bad about their lives online.

And public cameras have played key roles in helping police solve Elgin cases.

Police Cmdr. Glenn Theriault mentioned the Jan. 30, 2009, mistaken-identity murder of Paola Rodriguez along Raymond Street in which footage from a nearby fast-food restaurant – recorded in the same time frame – showed suspect Tony Rosalez, who was convicted of the crime in April 2012.

He also said that ROPE (Resident Officer Program of Elgin) Officer Eric Echevarria helped solve a case involving a burglary in January at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in his east-side neighborhood.

Echevarria knew that the church had cameras, which caught the theft of two brass holy water fonts worth about $1,000. And last year, the city also passed an ordinance requiring pawn shops and metal recyclers to save video footage for at least 30 days.

Police checked with a recycler and found an image of the church thief at one of them, which led to the arrest of Daniel Wells, Theriault said.

Lt. Sean Rafferty mentioned a recent case where Elgin Detective David Baumgartner was able to recognize someone committing a robbery at a gas station along Big Timber Road using a knife. Images captured by a store camera showed only the midportion of the man’s face. But according to reports, on April 23, police arrested Daniel Ontiveros for the crime after Baumgartner recognized him from an internal bulletin compiled using the store’s visual information.

Works Both Ways :

Rouse also noted that cameras can be used to corroborate what those on both sides of crime tell them and to clear as well as implicate those who might be involved.

As for where this all might be headed, Theriault said the department eventually would like to expand its use of license plate recognition software beyond the one vehicle that has it now. Such technology can link to other places using it to create a picture of where a particular car has been.

The department eventually also is looking into how, somewhere down the road, cameras already put in place by Kane County and the Illinois Department of Transportation to monitor traffic at intersections can be integrated into Elgin’s surveillance, Theriault noted.

Clancy and Rouse mentioned eventually getting software that would allow police to more smoothly jump back and forth when viewing the cameras in the city’s own systems.

Long-range, Theriault said the department is exploring how a smaller city such as Elgin might use what now are costly technologies that big-cities are using to fight as well as prevent crime.

In the meantime, the concerted effort to bring the community into the surveillance plan is part of a four-pronged approach to policing that involves educating residents and firms, building awareness and forming partnerships, thereby creating efficiencies from crime solving and prevention, Rouse said.

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Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty H. & Carolyn A.

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