Why the French spot terrorists better than Americans

Feb. 11, 2008
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.

A recent case of a suspect captured on video surveillance happened at the Cologne, Germany, rail station in 2006, when a terrorist planned to set off explosives on a train. This case also illustrates the deficiencies of analog technology. The resulting blurry image, captured and distributed all over German television, made it virtually impossible for anyone to clearly identify the terrorist. Thankfully, this individual had already caught the attention of police prior to the train incident. A wiretapped phone picked up a conversation between the terrorist and a family member in Lebanon in which he expressed worry about being caught because of the blurry video image of him being broadcast on television. In fact, it was the audio of that conversation that allowed the police to move on the suspect, not the unclear image of him.

Overall intelligence

Another key advantage of digital surveillance cameras is overall intelligence. Because of extensive computing power and the ability to program cameras to do a number of tasks, these cameras are really systems, as opposed to analog devices, which merely record images. Intelligent digital surveillance cameras can be programmed to recognize event triggers and generate alerts, which can then be sent over the Internet to a phone, PDA or computer. In addition, because of the Internet factor, one can remotely monitor a local or global area from a central control or alarm monitoring facility, as well as from a mobile phone or other handheld device.

Beyond being able to see more clearly, digital cameras see and record more overall. One high-resolution digital camera can easily produce detailed images of an entire room, compared to the two or three analog cameras necessary to do the same job. One camera versus two or three for the same room is definitely more cost effective.

Event-controlled image rate also saves money by minimizing storage costs. Instead of running a camera 24/7 and viewing hours of film to locate the necessary sequence, some newer camera systems use event-driven, automatically adjusted, digital recording frame rate based on event or sensor action. These systems only capture data when action occurs, thereby reducing the amount of captured footage and simplifying the time it takes to locate video data related to a specific incident.

Some intelligent digital cameras are also optimized to work in worst-case scenarios. If the network breaks down and there's no connection or power, these cameras can be configured to switch to a wireless mode and UPS (power backup) to send images to another emergency processing center. When one considers that the alleged New Jersey terrorists wanted to cut power to Fort Dix so that soldiers would come out into the open as targets, the importance of a good backup system cannot be overestimated.

Looking ahead

U.S. officials can learn from the French. It is better to be prepared before an incident occurs than react to it after the fact. More than six years after 9/11, America remains vulnerable to terrorists on many fronts -- ports, nuclear facilities, public transportation and more. Yet the country has not sufficiently modernized its video surveillance systems to meet current security needs.

The CCTV industry is part of the roadblock in this case. Its influence is being felt far and wide as companies attempt to forestall the inevitable: adoption of digital video surveillance as the industry standard. However, such efforts likely will not be successful. There is simply too little to gain and too much to lose to continue to uphold technology from another era that doesn't provide adequate security, and in the final analysis is actually more costly than digital cameras in terms of maintenance and limited functionality. The ability to do much more with less is one of the hallmarks of the Digital Age, and this is certainly true when it comes to surveillance cameras. It just doesn't make sense to simply increase the number of surveillance cameras if, at the same time, the quality of the systems is not improved to produce useful images.

The El Segundo, California-based market research firm, iSuppli Corporation, projects that it is not a question of if, but when, IP cameras will displace CCTV. The firm estimates U.S. revenue for IP cameras will be close to $6 billion by 2011, with CCTV revenues dropping steeply downward toward obsolescence.

In the meantime, law enforcement officials and U.S. civilians can begin to encourage legislators to enact a law similar to the new law in France: one that holds video surveillance in public places to a higher technological standard. As we near the seven-year anniversary of 9/11, it's the least we deserve.

About the author: Peter McKee is the international marketing director of MOBOTIX, which develops and manufactures high-performance IP/ISDN network video surveillance cameras. To learn more about MOBOTIX, visit www.mobotix.com.