Video surveillance control centres on the rise in the United States

U.S. cities have been setting up “real-time crime centres” (RTCC), which, according to the police, protect the rights of innocent people, but critics of this system warn of the excesses of this type of surveillance.

Last June, a report signed by researcher Zac Larkham was published on the website, which explained that in the 1990s, London built the so-called “ring of steel” with a network of concrete barriers, checkpoints and thousands of video cameras surrounding the city, due to the bombings of the Irish Republican Army. The idea was to control everyone coming in and out of the Square Mile, which ended up being called “fortress urbanism”.

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, urban planners seeking to defend New York from terrorism looked to London’s experience and fortress urbanism for inspiration. So-called “fusion centres”, where U.S. police share intelligence at the federal level to analyse it and build a broader picture of crime, had been in existence for several years. But officials began to wonder what would happen if they could perform geo-locations from these fusion centres and if local law enforcement could analyse and gather intelligence data from one city.

In 2005 they responded with the “first real-time crime centre,” an extensive network of CCTV and Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) connected to a central hub at NYPD headquarters, which cost more than $11 million. Since then, from Miami to Seattle, RTCCs have gradually expanded throughout the United States. The Atlas of Surveillance, a project of the not-for-profit digital rights organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which oversees police surveillance technology, has accounted for 123 RTCCs nationwide, and that number is increasing.

Each RTCC is slightly different, but its function is the same: collect surveillance data across a city and use it to create a live picture of crime in the city. Police departments have a wide variety of technologies at their disposal, ranging from CCTV, gunshot sensors and social network monitoring to drones and body-worn cameras. In many cases, the images collected by police systems are run through facial recognition technology and the data collected is often used in predictive policing.

However, most evidence on the efficacy of RTCCs is anecdotal and there is an effective lack of studies on the actual efficacy of this system. In Detroit, a National Institute of Justice study concluded that Project Green Light, in which the Detroit Police Department set up cameras in more than 550 locations, including schools, churches, private businesses and health care facilities, helped decrease property damage in some cases or areas, but did not help prevent violent crime or other types of crime. However, police departments argue that RTCCs have a positive impact on their work.

Few people know that RTCCs exist, let alone the extent of surveillance they entail, so these expanding control centres may receive little public scrutiny and often operate without much oversight. For a long while there have been concerns from various sectors about how these surveillance technologies could affect the First and Fourth Amendments.


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