U.S. Eyes U.K.'s Surveillance Cameras London's closed-circuit television system was of significant benefit in tracking bombing suspects last week. Some U.S. police officials hope to adopt similar systems, but they must overcome concerns about privacy and other abuses.
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U.S. Eyes U.K.'s Surveillance Cameras

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U.S. Eyes U.K.'s Surveillance Cameras


U.S. Eyes U.K.'s Surveillance Cameras

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Police in Britain continue to probe the backgrounds of the eight people linked to last week's Glasgow Airport bombing. A large part of that investigation is the scanning of thousands of hours of videotapes from the country's 4.2 million closed-circuit cameras.

London police say they should be able to track the moves and planning used by the terrorist suspects over the last few months. This kind of powerful investigative tool has some police in the Untied States salivating over the possibility of bringing a similar system to this country.

NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been talking to law enforcement and she joins us. Thanks for coming in.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You bet. My pleasure.

SMITH: Why is Britain so much more willing to use this technology than the United States?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they've been using it in dealing with terrorism much longer. Originally, the system was meant to combat IRA terrorism. And the system started late 1990s, after there were series of truck bombs in central London. They started developing what they called the ring of steel. And the ring of steel is in fact 240 cameras that are all around central London that, not only have license plate recognition so they can track cars, but also face recognition lenses as well. Literally, every car on the road in Britain can be tracked now.

SMITH: And so the reason why it is in the United States is that a public opinion reason or is it unconstitutional to do that kind of thing here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I don't think anyone thinks it's unconstitutional. What you do in a public place is allowed to be filmed.

SMITH: Well, there's certainly no shortage of surveillance cameras on the streets of the United States, I mean, every ATM has one. What stands in the way of upgrading it to the level of Britain's surveillance system?

TEMPLE-RASTON: There are a number of different patchworks systems in the United States. So when you see traffic report, you're looking through a camera. Those cameras right now are not connected to law enforcement necessarily in different states. And there's a big movement in the United States to take those cameras and internal cameras and businesses cameras and link them together, so essentially you'll have a seamless picture.

SMITH: Have any cities in the United States tried to install such systems?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, absolutely. There are systems like these in Miami - they're just starting. I spoke with John Timoney earlier this week. He is the police chief of Miami. He's trying to install a number of these cameras along the commercial corridor in Miami. I spoke to William Bratton, who is the police chief of Los Angeles, this week. They're trying to link a number of the downtown cameras in Los Angeles to the overall California highway system cameras.

SMITH: How can this technology be abused?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They're have been cases in which police officers, instead of focusing in on a particular business that they were interested in or particular suspect or are just, sort of, taking the cameras and veering them off in the direction of hot-looking women instead. Or there's also the problem of storage. There were all these videotapes and there was concern that they would fall into the wrong hands, be used for some sort of blackmailing purposes or copies would be made and used incorrectly.

The thing is that now the technology is much better. If you're making an elicit copy and you're a police officer, you actually have to log into a computer to do that so people can trace it. If you're actually zooming in on a very good looking young lady instead of what you're supposed to be looking at, there's a record of that. You can't just cut it out or have it be buried.

And because of that reason, a lot of people in law enforcement who have been against this cameras in the past say that there enough safeguards that there's less of this Big Brother aspects that people need to worry about.

SMITH: So what you're saying the main thing standing in the way of this being put up in the United States is public opinion, still?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's money too. It cost a lot of money to put these cameras up. And certainly, civil liberty groups are the ones who are objecting to these, but it's interesting that the way they're objecting to it is not by saying this is Big Brother, but, in fact, by saying, show me how these cameras actually reduce crime rates and we'll tell you that they're worth while. What happens is the surveillance cameras are able to be used as evidence afterwards. But the actual prevention of crimes, there's a real question about that.

SMITH: Dina Temple-Raston is NPR's FBI correspondent. Thanks, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In my pleasure.

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