Video analytics and the future of video surveillance

ABC7's February 2010 special segment features video analytics placed in Chicago. Using reporter Paul Meincke, ABC7 fabricates a bank robbery. Meincke escapes and drives around the city in a blue minivan. Meanwhile, Nick Beaton, commander of Chicago's office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) Operations Center, locates the vehicle and follows it around the city using video analytics. “Human eyes can’t watch it all,” says Meincke.

Video analytics are a high-tech network of surveillance cameras that aid the OEMC and the police department in reporting crimes. In the segment, they look for the reporter’s blue minivan on Dearborn Street at 10:00 a.m. In a matter of seconds, thumbnail images matching the descriptions appear in a manageable quantity and operators are able to track the vehicle in real-time.

The purpose of the fake bank robbery was to display the technology's abilities. Beaton says, "[Video analytics] can cut 12 hours of man hours down to 20 minutes with one person as opposed to three people sitting there at various computers." Filming city life 24 hours a day, seven days a week, generates a vast amount of footage. Even if operators know a crime’s location and time, they may need days to gather the right footage. Video analytics can help solve this problem.

Like a search engine, video analytics link key words to footage. The segment points out practical flaws: cameras break, photos blur, and sometimes the angles are off. Without explaining how these common problems are resolved, the news reporter ends on a positive note, stating that in the near future they expect street cameras to detect potentially dangerous activities (i.e. someone dropping a bag or object and then leaving).

The news segment is optimistic about the technological aspect of street surveillance, mentioning advancements like 360 degree-view cameras. However, they do not address privacy concerns.The main argument against citywide video surveillance is the threat of information abuse. Law enforcers can use surveillance cameras to track certain individuals; these can be people with criminal records, people suspected of committing crimes, or political activists, to name a few.

In order to monitor camera usage, clear legal boundaries need to be established. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published an article called "What's Wrong With Public Video Surveillance?" which mentions American cities that have installed police-operated cameras including Washington, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The article calls into question the potential use of cameras that can "detect wavelengths outside the visible spectrum, allowing night vision or see-through vision,” as well as those equipped with facial recognition.

Trading Privacy for Safety?

For many, trading privacy rights for public safety is an uncomfortable idea. The article also says, “There are currently no general, legally enforceable rules to limit privacy invasions and protect against abuse of CCTV systems.” We need laws to prevent abusers from stepping over the line.

The ACLU article emphasizes the need for credibility and accountability in video surveillance limitations and control. The legal boundaries must state who can use the footage, under what conditions, and for how long. Other questions include how the rules would be established and enforced, and what punishments would apply to violators.

Perhaps with strict rules and more public transparency, civilians could feel they have some control over the future and implementation of video analytics. “‘I have nothing to hide’ has become the mantra of the 21st century privacy apatheist,” writes Zachary Slayback in his article “Nothing to Hide? Why Privacy Matters … Even for the Innocent,” for Penn Political Review. Even if someone “has nothing to hide,” privacy rights are intended to protect people and allow them to choose what gets exposed.

Slayback adds, “Privacy defines us. Our ability to control what information we voluntarily release to the world helps us define ourselves.” 


Video analytics has great potential. It contributes to fast and accurate footage searches, reduces the number of human operators, and helps prevent potential crimes. But to successfully implement a video surveillance program that helps the city, the program needs to win people's approval. The only way to do so is with appropriate surveillance laws in place and city law enforcers proving they can protect the public’s safety in a way that does not violate their privacy.

Forecasted start year: 
2015 to 2022


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