CCTV and its role in the counter-terror agenda

With a history dating back to the early 1990s of legacy CCTV systems deployed throughout the UK for use in urban surveillance, are they really fit for purpose as a potent weapon in the growing war against terrorism?

It’s clear that video surveillance plays a key role in fighting crime and protecting public spaces. It is a valuable aid to the ‘operational management’ of urban spaces, such as town and city centres, industrial parks, hospitals and universities where it’s designed and installed to improve community safety as well as aid the early identification of crime and emergency situations and other disruptive incidents.

However, CCTV’s primary use by public bodies, councils and the police is in combating comparatively minor but nonetheless prolific crimes such as anti-social behaviour, minor assault and theft, etc. It’s in this area where surveillance is most beneficial and successful. Indeed, successes here over the years are responsible for CCTV having gained positive public support.

Worryingly, though, the trend today exhibited by a number of public organisations seems to show CCTV moving towards a prime use of revenue generation. Most certainly, this runs the risk of turning the public’s positive perception of surveillance on its head and, in turn, diminishing its value.

The majority of UK public space CCTV was designed and implemented before the West’s ‘War on Terror’ was invoked. Post- 9/11, then, the question to ask is whether CCTV surveillance plays an effective and active part in counter-terrorism?

With escalating trouble in the Middle East and the resurgence of dissident IRA terror groups closer to home, even though the threat level set by the UK Government has just been reduced from ‘Severe’ (meaning a terrorist attack is highly likely) to ‘substantial’, experts predict it is not a matter of if there’ll be some form of attack but when.

Is legacy CCTV up to the task?

Given that natural resources are dwindling, the threat of climate change and that civil unrest around the world is destined to rise, this will significantly increase the threat of terrorist incidents posed by both home grown activists and international terrorists. As such, is the legacy CCTV technology deployed really up to the job?

Counter-terrorism experts profile terrorist target opportunities as generally crowded places that are both busy and contained (for example train stations, shopping malls, sports stadiums).

Places where there are predictable routines and patterns, where terrorist perpetrators can pass unnoticed and remain undetected and where the impact of an incident will gain maximum media exposure.

The Western World – and the the UK in particular – has been relatively lucky to date as terrorist attacks have been restricted to ‘backpacker’ bombs (such as those used in the 7/7 attacks in London) and the car bombs fashioned for the Glasgow International Airport attack.

We have yet to witness mass suicide bombings or indiscriminate shootings as observed in Mumbai and, more recently, the atrocious attack in Norway by lone gunman Anders Behing Breivik.

Sadly, this has happened in the UK in non-terrorist related incidents, such as the Dunblane massacre in 1996 and the Derrick Bird incident of June last year in West Cumbria when 12 people were shot dead and 25 injured. This incident clearly demonstrated the horrific impact of a Mumbai-style terrorist attack.

Counter-terrorism: focus on situational awareness

Counter-terrorism is focused on ‘situational awareness’ (“Knowing what is going on so you can figure out what to do”, Adam, 1993) with the police and the Security Services relying on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Generally, most terrorist opportunities which match the above profile are covered by some form of CCTV surveillance.

Undoubtedly, a well-designed video surveillance system and operational strategy would aid counter-terrorism by providing monitoring, surveillance and intelligence gathering to enable both the assessment of a potential incident. Post-event, its use lies in evidence gathering and forensic analysis.

That said, from a technical standpoint two fundamental issues need to be addressed: camera location and the technology employed.

Back in the 1990s, urban surveillance was a new field and, unfortunately, many of these systems were often poorly planned and designed due to the fact that stakeholders had little experience to draw upon when designing and implementing them.

The problem was compounded still further by a lack of knowledgeable CCTV companies in an industry which remains largely unregulated even though it has grown at a phenomenal rate.

The fact is that anybody can set up a CCTV business. There are some first class companies in operation but, sadly, there are many which bring the industry into disrepute.

In the best case examples camera locations were derived at by consultation between the police, the local authority and perceived CCTV experts. The police specified the general area of coverage from crime pattern analysis statistics, the council on the availability of services and planning consents and the CCTV installer or consultant (with limited experience in urban surveillance) on the camera viewing capability and the logistics of installation and maintenance.

However, there was generally scant information on expectations of the cameras in terms of: ‘What do you want to see?’ and in what detail?

Home Office and the CCTV User Group

As a result of experience gained, organisations such as the Home Office and the CCTV User Group have addressed some of these failings by improving the design of CCTV systems and producing operational requirement documents which set out what the systems are expected to achieve and also enhancing the training of operators and their use of the systems involved.

Its good practice and a requirement of BS EN 50132-7 to follow the Home Office Police Scientific Development Branch advice. This states that, before a suitable CCTV system can be specified, it’s essential that an initial assessment is undertaken in order to determine the system scope, objectives and requirements.

Note that these should not be confused with the technical requirements!

Initially, it’s vital to provide answers to the following questions:

BS EN 50132-7:1996 entitled ‘Alarm Systems: CCTV Surveillance Systems for Use in Security Applications – Part 7: Application Guidelines’ describes fully the steps needed to produce an ‘operational requirement’ document.

This document should clearly state what the customer expects in terms of the system’s functions. It’s designed to encourage clear thinking about what, where, when and by whom (and in particular the why) of a CCTV system.

The operational requirement presents those with the necessary skills to convert the document into a technical specification and test procedures which form the basis of the system design, implementation and operation.

This is where the skill and experience of the system technical designer comes in, whether it’s an installer or engineering consultant. That individual earns their crust by interpreting the operational requirement into equipment: cameras, storage, display, processing and transmission mediums which fit together forming a complete working video surveillance system that best delivers the criteria in terms of what the system is expected to achieve and the level of visual information it delivers.

Best locations for anti-terrorist use

Given that experience has resulted in better system design and camera positioning, the issue to address is whether or not cameras located to combat general crime represent the best location for anti-terrorist use?

On face value, the speedy identification and subsequent arrest of the July 7/7 London bombers would suggest CCTV is certainly effective post-event, but this raises two important points.

First, was it more luck than judgement and would the incident have been avoided – or the perpetrators detected earlier – if the CCTV cameras had been better sited?

The second and arguably more important issue relates to the huge amount of police time expended on locating and identifying the relevant cameras for potential useful images, and trawling through hours of recorded video footage to find the few precious nuggets of information.

The deployment of CCTV has grown piecemeal in the UK over the years, generally funded by National Lottery-style grants. No-one really knows where all the cameras are located, who they belong to or what they are expected to achieve. In fact, we don’t actually know how many CCTV cameras there are deployed in the UK.

Estimates vary from 4.2 million – the figure based on research undertaken by Michael McCahill and Clive Norris in a paper published in 2002 and a number frequently called into question in recent years – and the 1.85 million mentioned in a recent survey carried out by the deputy chief constable of Cheshire, Graeme Gerrard, the lead on CCTV issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

The revised figure was calculated following an information gathering exercise in the force area by Cheshire Constabulary, but clearly to be truly meaningful this exercise needs to be carried out by all relevant CCTV stakeholders across the UK.

When rapid deployment cameras – ie those which can be fitted quickly and relocated as crime trends and patterns change – are added into the equation, it demonstrates the huge scale of this task.

Much more research is required

To the best of my knowledge, with the possible exception of London little work has been carried out with respect to the locating of cameras specifically for counter-terrorism use in urban surveillance situations (I exclude specific threats such as sea ports and airport, by the way).

Clearly, much more research is required in target profiling and a greater co-operation between the various experts in the Security Services, police departments and the video surveillance industry about where counter-terrorism cameras should be deployed and exactly what they ought to be expected to achieve in terms of scope and detail.

There is also a need for greater CCTV operator training to aid them in identifying potential terror-related incidents.

Thankfully, terrorist attacks are still rare in the UK and given the relative infrequency of attacks this could be justified as too expensive with respect to risk, and it could prove difficult for operators to gain practical experience and retain what they have learned.

Technology offers efficiency in the counter-terror role

It’s difficult to dispute that it would be virtually impossible to monitor terrorist activity and ultimately track down and apprehend terrorists without video surveillance, particularly with respect to Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems.

Much more thought and planning may be required to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of video surveillance in a counter-terrorism role. There needs to be more joined-up thinking: a drastic change is needed for CCTV to be a truly effective weapon in battling both crime and terrorism.

Paramount is a secure but easily accessible database of all of the UK’s cameras containing detailed mapping of where each camera is located, who it belongs to, what its operational requirement is, whether the objectives of the operational requirement are still being met and where its video recorded images can be obtained.

Without this information, how are the Security Services and the police going to know how to efficiently locate useful visual data?

This is an area where new digital IP technology comes into its own. It would be hugely advantageous to have all the UK’s urban surveillance cameras networked and accessed by the relevant agencies on a location-wide basis nationwide, county or city- wide in the event of a terrorist incident or emergency situation.

This would streamline and improve cross-border co-operation and intelligence sharing between various security and policing factions: invaluable in any serious incident, such as those awful occasions when a child is abducted.

IP-based digital video technology removes the restrictions of costly point-to-point cabling required for analogue CCTV systems, replacing them with the cheaper and infinitely more flexible LAN/WAN Infrastructure. This way, more traffic is introduced to the networks and more value will be added to the huge investments at all infrastructural levels.

Introducing the Safe City Concept

In my last article for SMT Online, entitled ‘Security and The Intelligent Building’, I made brief mention of the ‘Safe City’ concept. In that concept, the emphasis is on integration and networking of security and safety systems to detect and monitor security incidents, making the information accessible to multiple responsible agencies and the emergency services, etc such that they might initiate the correct level of preventative and corrective responses and better manage emergency situations and other disruptive incidents in order to increase public safety and welfare.

IP-centric systems use a common network infrastructure based on international Internet protocol standards to converge voice, fax, video and data where traditionally separate networks were required for data collaboration and sharing in order to facilitate and maximise an organisations’ management and operational efficiencies while reducing OPEX.

IP-centric security and surveillance systems create a greater level of situational awareness and allow intelligent decisions to be made more quickly. By adopting network video technology we can redefine our strategy for urban surveillance, not least due to network cameras being easier and cheaper to deploy.

Also, the associated video streams are cheaper to transmit to authorised persons requiring the visual information, whether it’s for a crime, terrorism-related or a natural disaster situation.

Designated users can access, monitor, store and archive video, audio and associated application data over the Internet or across private data networks using the authentication access codes.

Cheaply deployed network video cameras provide multiple, ever watchful eyes gathering consistent intelligence, never sleeping or getting confused by what they witness.

Traditionally, most urban space surveillance systems in the UK use analogue camera systems with image quality restricted by old TV CCIR standards. Embracing the use of HDTV or megapixel camera technology in place of the outdated analogue camera devices provides enhanced image performance and coverage, in turn realising far more detailed and accurate intelligence gathering and thus meeting a basic counter-terrorist requisite.

Focal point for visual data: the operator

There is little doubt that CCTV is a powerful crime management tool producing huge amounts of visual data. Some solutions yield valuable intelligence which can lead to successful prosecutions. The focal point for this visual data is the CCTV operator.

Conventional analogue CCTV systems are heavily dependent on the operator, relying solely on humans to identify events, decipher and process the information and to take the correct action (further investigation, generate an alarm, etc) at the right time, even if they have never had to take the action before and during what could be a very stressful situation.

High responsibility is vested in the operator. A conventional CCTV system with digital recording is only as clever as the person monitoring it, whether in real-time or during the playback of recorded events.

In reality, CCTV is not always hugely efficient. Many studies show that CCTV systems are limited and the operator often misses important visual data.

A report by video analytics developer iOmniscient advises that, watching only two monitors, after ten minutes an operator misses 45% of data and after 22 minutes they’ll 95% of data, making event-driven intelligence one of the most compelling reasons to adopt network video surveillance.

Network video cameras feature a wide range of automated software settings and alert triggers which improve security management efficiency, expenditure and response times. Given the use of cameras with intelligent video, audio and alarm management, network video surveillance becomes a truly powerful and intelligent visual management tool.

It can automatically alert the CCTV operator to exceptions or unusual events. Intelligent software will alert the user to events as they unfold, so they are then able to take immediate action and prevent or diminish the impact of incidents.

This increased intelligence offers a wealth of management information that can be easily stored and accessed at any time by the appropriate persons.

Human analysis of review footage: making the process more efficient

Cameras featuring built-in video analytics and intelligent video functions such as video motion detection, audio detection and applications supported by a camera application platform can be used as alarm triggers to activate recording and make human analysis of review footage more efficient, manageable and less prone to error by flagging relevant sections of recordings.

As well as being able to trigger and send notification of events/alerts to relevant stakeholders via e-mail, HTTP and TCP.

Camera audio functions can be used not only to trigger alerts and warn operators of incidents, but also allow them to remotely listen in and communicate with, for example, intruders via public address speakers (or, in an emergency, to warn crowds to disperse).

Triggers may also connect to external devices such as sensors and relays to, for example, turn on lights or lock doors when an alert is received.

This advanced functionality and performance event-driven intelligence enables the configuration of site or incident-specific systems programmed to automatically detect exceptions such as the build-up of crowds, left objects, abandoned vehicle detection, etc: whatever is relevant to the particular security situation at hand.

The cornerstone of effective management of any situation, be it terrorism or natural disaster, is ‘organisation and preparedness’ and having up-to-date intelligence on which to make informed decisions. Through the use of an open, standards-based, IP-network-centric functional and management architecture providing easy integration with available third party applications, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), converging physical security solutions and Information Technology – when coupled with the right front end operating platform or Physical Information Management System (PSIM) – we clearly realise this objective in managing any disruptive incident.

Something which cannot be said about today’s legacy systems.

On the other hand, do we really want an overburdening State ‘intelligently’ watching over us?

Peter Houlis is managing director of 2020 Vision Systems

   

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August 4, 2011

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