In More Cities, A Camera On Every Corner, Park And Sidewalk : All Tech Considered A growing number of cities are using surveillance cameras in the hope of fighting crime, but all that video is almost useless without powerful search tools to sort the material. The municipal camera trend is proving to be big business for companies that design video analytics software.
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In More Cities, A Camera On Every Corner, Park And Sidewalk

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In More Cities, A Camera On Every Corner, Park And Sidewalk

In More Cities, A Camera On Every Corner, Park And Sidewalk

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Let's hear another installment of the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This whole building is based on technology.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is an old city but we add on the latest technologies.

INSKEEP: OK. The NPR Cities Project is our exploration of urban innovation, using technology to become more efficient - or try to be safer. Today, we'll focus on surveillance cameras and sophisticated software that goes with them. They become big business, sold to cities of all sizes. NPR's Stephen Henn reports from a suburb of Sacramento, California called Elk Grove.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: I'm sitting on a swing in Miwok Park in Elk Grove, California. The morning commute here is made up of toddlers, kids, dog walkers, some moms, but right now I'm being watched almost as carefully as I would be if I were on Wall Street. There's a camera right over my head.

CHELSEA YOKKUM: I didn't even know that one was there.

HENN: Chelsea Yokkum is playing with her son. Nearby a couple is lying on a picnic blanket kind of snuggling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We were just kind of enjoying each others' company, I guess you could say.

HENN: They know there is a camera here but - do you know where that camera feed goes or what happens to it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No. I have no idea.

HENN: It goes directly into the Elk Grove Police department.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That is kind of scary in a sense, just knowing that people are watching no matter what.

HENN: That man didn't want to give his name and that was true of many of folks in Elk Grove who told me they are apprehensive about these cameras. But people like Chelsea Yokkum, who were comfortable giving their names, were also OK with the cameras.

YOKKUM: I like the idea of it personally because I have a son of my own, you know? Do you want to reach that one?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: No, no, no. No, reach that one. Reach that one.


HENN: This community has invested hundreds of thousands on surveillance and plans to spend even more. After all, another playground a few blocks from here - one without a camera - was burned to the ground this spring, a suspected arson. Let's head across town to meet the man building this network.

CHRIS HILL: My name is Chris Hill. I am the IT manager here at the Elk Grove Police Department.

HENN: We are walking into the server room that runs the system. Wow, it's loud in here.

HILL: You can get camera feeds, you can make up any screens you want, you can search any video.

HENN: More than 100 feeds are viewable and searchable from Chris Hill's desk.

HILL: This other one here is actually in a parking lot. This was a known spot in the city of Elk Grove that had a high rate of car burglaries.

HENN: So we are watching a woman now open up her mini-van door.

HILL: Mm-hmm. And as soon as she drives off we can follow her out of the parking lot and down the street as well.

HENN: Wow. So you can read plates?

HILL: Absolutely. So this is probably 100 yards away and you can very easily read that license plate even as that car is moving.

HENN: All these cameras together record more than four days of video each hour, and Hill would like even more.

HILL: So we actually have a pilot project coming up - hopefully shortly - with a local retailer that will be giving us access to their parking lot cameras.

HENN: But Hill doesn't want his officers spending time watching parking lots, writing down plate numbers. The software can do that for them. And to see how, I traveled to San Francisco and the offices of 3VR.

AL SHIPP: Most people don't understand that putting more cameras doesn't necessarily yield more information.

HENN: Al Shipp is the CEO. His company makes the software Elk Grove uses to sift through its recordings. They offer facial recognition, license plate readers and object based searches.

SHIPP: Instead of watching hours and maybe days of video, you can ask questions like: show me all red cars that went east. Those are search arguments that you can do with our technology and literally sort through weeks of video in a few seconds.

HENN: The software can alert the police when someone enters a park after dark. Or can search for a face.

DIEGO SIMKIN: Yeah. So this person was captured at 2:18.

HENN: Diego Simkin is a technician at 3VR.

SIMKIN: So what I would do is I'd right click here, search for this person. I have the ability to not only search for this specific camera but I can search against multiple cameras on that system or multiple systems.

HENN: And that kind of ability to expand a video search is a major draw for police in Elk Grove and departments across the country. This industry is growing by 30 percent a year and the software alone is poised to become a billion dollar business. In the nation's capital some are watching with concern.

LAURA DONOHUE: The idea that all this information will be fed into one place I think is a game changer in terms of how we look at our world.

HENN: Laura Donohue is a Law professor at Georgetown. She says while it is reasonable to expect that someone one will see you lying in a public park...

DONOHUE: You do have a reasonable expectation that nobody is going to be following you around 24 hours a day, seven days a week everywhere you go.

HENN: And Donohue worries that's were these systems, like the one in Elk Grove, seem to be headed.

MINA FARDAN: That's a camera?

HENN: That's a camera. Yeah.

FARDAN: Cool. Oh, surprising. They should let people know.

HENN: Even, Mina Fardan says, if those people are just picnicking in Miwok Park and have nothing to hide.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: I'm hiding something.

HENN: Not from the camera. The camera is right behind you.


HENN: I'm Steve Henn for the NPR Cities Project.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

And you can go online and find other stories about smart cities. And if you don't look for them, don't worry, they'll find you. They're at


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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