Vertical Market Focus: Cities/Municipalities--Overcoming Technical, Legal Hurdles in Municipal Surveillance

May 1, 2012
Overcoming Technical, Legal Hurdles in Municipal Surveillance

Designing and installing a municipal surveillance network can be a monumental challenge even for the most seasoned systems integrators. Not only are there the obvious technical challenges—such as running cable, setting up poles, configuring camera hardware and software—there are also numerous policies that must also be navigated by the chosen contractor and system stakeholders.

However, coordinating with the other municipal agencies involved in the physical installation can prove to be a big challenge. This was the case for Tele-Tector of Maryland Inc., the integrator responsible for the installation and maintenance of Baltimore’s CitiWatch program.

Tele-Tector President David Spilman said that his firm had to work with numerous city entities to get the city’s camera network up and running, including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Works and Baltimore Gas and Electric.

“That’s really the toughest part because you’re doing underground cabling work, you’re replacing poles, you’re installing new poles, you’re installing new fiber and/or using existing fiber and also working with the city’s IT department to find out exactly what cable goes where and what is usable and not usable,” Spilman explained.

Camera presence, growth in Baltimore

One of the most robust municipal surveillance networks in the country, the CitiWatch program was launched in 2005 by former Mayor Martin O'Malley with an initial deployment of 50 cameras. The program now integrates more than 500 cameras from across the city into the Criminal Intelligence Watch Center located inside Baltimore Police Department headquarters. Though budget constraints and meeting deadlines can be hard on some integrators who work on citywide surveillance initiatives, Spilman said that the toughest issue Tele-Tector faced when they started work on the system eight years ago was a lack of experience working on a large-scale city project of this scope.

“Obviously, in the beginning, it was cutting out teeth and learning how long it takes to do something,” he said. “The coordination of ordering new poles, that’s a big deal because it could take between eight to 12 weeks on a project someone may want in 30 days and obviously you just can’t make that challenge. It’s just the coordination internally. Now, it’s difficult, but what we’ve learned over the years makes our job much easier.”

“It’s the different agencies you’ve got to deal with and getting everybody lined up in a timely fashion where you can keep rolling and not get held up by somebody,” added Tele-Tector Project Manager Jeff Wilks.

Spilman said there have also been some technological challenges that the company has had to deal with through the years, including how to best utilize wireless technology and things that could potentially interfere with a camera’s line of sight.

“When a tree is three-feet tall it turns into 20-feet tall. Each installation, even in the beginning, was a pretty well thought and planned out process that has gone relatively smoothly. It’s the continuity of the people involved,” he said.

Though they don’t engage in any political or legal battles concerning CitiWatch, Spilman said that they do meet regularly with city officials to discuss the status of installations and any other potential concerns they may have.

Integrator input into specifications

“We work directly with the mayor’s office of information technology and we have meetings with them once a week at city hall to discuss where we are with current installations, where we are with current maintenance of the existing system and where we are with possible new locations. As far as complaints from citizens or requests from citizens, that’s really taken care of by the city,” Spilman said. “We have met with different community groups. We have talked with them if they request us to speak with them to explain disruptions if there are any, which typically there are not and any concerns we may have to address, but that is unusual.”

One of the most important, but perhaps overlooked components of having a citywide surveillance system is maintenance. After all, what good does it do to have a surveillance system if it does not function properly?

According to Spilman, Tele-Tector has a crew of workers dedicated to providing upkeep on the CitiWatch system.

“We do preventative maintenance every day, Monday through Friday on the cameras and we go to different locations. All the cameras are touched about once a quarter or so to clean them off,” he said. “We monitor the system every day and if there are issues with a camera we troubleshoot them within two-to-four hours typically.”

Even when an integrator has the full support of city leadership and law enforcement officials as Tele-Tector did in Baltimore, there can be a number of different legal challenges that can arise in addition to the technical ones during the integration of a surveillance network.

System Development Integration LLC (SDI), which integrated surveillance cameras from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport into the city’s Operation Virtual Shield (OVS) network, has had to navigate numerous policy issues throughout the project’s history, according to Donald Zoufal, safety and security executive for the company.

When SDI took over the contract for the airport in the early 2000s, Zoufal, the former deputy commissioner for safety and security at Chicago’s Department of Aviation, said there were about 750 cameras between the two airports, which has expanded to well in excess of 2,000. With that expansion, however, have come a number of legal concerns.

“In my experience, the policy issues are often times the more significant hurdles to overcome,” Zoufal said. “I have yet to come up with a technology request from SDI when I was their client or in my experience working with SDI where I’ve gone to the technology guys and said ‘hey, a client wants to do A, B or C can we accommodate that from a technology point-of-view?’ Generally, those solutions are doable now. There may be cost factors, but getting the technology to do what you want it to do, especially with the advent of digital platforms, that’s pretty easy. Often times, it’s getting policy agreements, it’s getting that design of a concept of operations and buy-in from multiple jurisdictions and agencies that’s the much more difficult thing to accomplish.”

There were still technical challenges, however and one of the first obstacles that SDI had to overcome, according to Zoufal, was providing a migration path from the legacy analog infrastructure at the airports to a digital platform. Beyond that, Zoufal said that the majority of issues related to this and similar camera systems are generally policy-related.

Storage and accessibility issues

Among some of the biggest legal concerns for cities include access to video by the public and how long footage must be stored.

“In Illinois, and I think in most states, the concept that data that is gathered and recorded by cameras constitutes public data and public records,” Zoufal explained. “That means they fall heavily under whatever legal requirements you have for maintaining public records. That’s important from the standpoint of system operation because it tells you how much data you have to store.”

When the OVS system was being created, Zoufal said that they had to make a proposal to an independent commission on how long they would store video. The commission would later accept their proposal to store video for a period of 30 days.

“That’s a big driver for your system in terms of how many days you have to store it,” he said. “One of the teaching points is that was beyond the political control of the city that wanted to implement this system.”

However, Zoufal said that after they had agreed on 30 days, there was a proposal that was put forth in the state legislature and later rejected that would have required them to store video for two years, which would have created tremendous ongoing infrastructure costs for the city.

“We went down to Springfield [the state’s capitol] and testified against that bill because essentially we said ‘we’ve built a system now, a huge public safety video system, which is predicated on 30-day retention. If you required to keep the data for 24 months, rather than the one month I plan to keep it for, the costs would have been about $20 million higher,” Zoufal said.

Another big concern for municipal surveillance deployments is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and who can access video footage. Though many FOIA requests are denied due to the fact that they’re part of ongoing investigations, Zoufal said that reasoning cannot be applied to all situations and that cities have to figure out how they’re going to deal with people that want access to video for frivolous endeavors.  

“There are true legal concerns that you have to have in addressing these systems that relate to larger public policy issues,” he said. “The rules that you predicate a system on can change over time and you have to be able to adapt your system to those changes.”