Why the French spot terrorists better than Americans

By substantially improving video surveillance quality in public areas, they are increasing the probability of catching suspects before the fact

Since 9/11, there have been many civil rights-related questions raised about video surveillance. What has been discussed less frequently is the actual quality of the video displayed and recorded; a simple question might be posed: "Why do even the most basic cell phone cameras capture higher resolution images than the average video surveillance system?"

The answer, in part, is that while just about everything else in the world is becoming digital, the world of video surveillance has largely remained analog. IP (digital) video surveillance technology is readily available and cost effective, but has not been deployed in the most obvious of arenas -- public safety. Not only are analog video surveillance images less clear than digital video, and therefore less useful, but analog cameras lack the functionality and intelligence of digital cameras. They see less detail, store less detail, and lack the ability to analyze or send alerts when a suspicious event is spotted.

Remember the foggy image of Mohammed Atta going through airport security at Boston Logan International Airport? And how authorities had to resort to driver's license photos to clearly see what the hijackers really looked like? Unfortunately, not much has changed since then.

The issue has come to the forefront in France, where a new law has been passed that will substantially increase the image quality required of video surveillance cameras in public places and high-security, restricted zones. Ninety-five percent of analog camera systems will simply not be able to meet this new requirement. IP video will become the defacto standard.

And what spurred the French to act? The 2005 London subway bombings, and the reality that France could be next.

So, why is the United States, of all places, not up to speed with the latest in video surveillance technology? This is a public safety issue that has yet to be addressed. How will terrorists and potential terrorists be caught if they can't be plainly identified by the cameras capturing their images?

Image quality

In the case of CCTV (analog), image quality consists of about 288 horizontal lines on a video screen. This doesn't give much resolution, and accounts for the typically blurry images such cameras produce. A digital video camera, on the other hand, can produce a megapixel image of up to approximately 960 lines. That's a massive amount of detail and accounts for the consistently clearer, broadcast quality of digital IP video images. The average analog camera used today can transmit a maximum equivalent of 0.4 megapixels, but due to technical and cost restraints records only 0.1 megapixels of that. Compare this to a digital IP system transmitting and recording images up to 1.3 megapixels on demand.

The 2005 London subway bombings made an impact on the French. If one looks at the video surveillance footage taken of the suspects in these attacks, the image quality is so unclear, that in many cases, it is difficult to identify them. To their credit, the French have opted not to potentially repeat such history in their country. By substantially improving video surveillance quality in public areas, they are increasing the probability of catching suspects before the fact -- since alerts can be triggered if suspicious packages are left in areas -- or, in a worst-case scenario, suspects can be detained quickly after the fact since they can be clearly identified.

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