Realizing Video’s Promise Will Be Tricky

Digital technology and IP connectivity have made video surveillance an amazingly powerful facet of security and an increasingly valuable business management tool, not to mention a huge source of revenue growth for security integrators. Continued refinements along with advancements in wireless technology, analytics, scalability and integratability, among other areas, are only serving to expand the applications and ubiquity of video solutions even more. However, for all its virtues this new era of video surveillance presents at least an equal number of challenges and quandaries – and I am not talking about commoditization.

Traditionally, video surveillance has always been a source of hot debate and a leading source of outrage for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as it relates to a person’s right to privacy. That outcry was reduced to a murmur following 9/11 as fear and distraction allowed the number of cameras and recording systems to explode exponentially. Privacy concerns were further assuaged thanks to image masking capabilities and other safeguards, while global acts of terrorism continued to heighten the urgent need to maximize surveillance.

So today we find ourselves in the midst of an unabated and largely unchecked proliferation of cameras and surveillance systems. On the one hand, it’s great for the industry and, in many cases, for everyone in terms of safety and efficiency. On the other hand, it’s sort of like the Wild West and we are wading into a lot of uncharted waters – some of which, if we are not careful, may sink us. If you think the false alarm issue has been heated and complex, it could become child’s play by comparison. Let me cite some examples to illustrate my concern.

Perhaps millions of cameras have already been deployed in systems around the world for myriad applications. Many of them have installation, user or other issues that undermine the technology and, by association, our industry. Could be the wrong camera for the application; improper lighting or shadows; inadequate frame rate; poor camera positioning; wrong lens; cabling problems; storage insufficiencies; recording not activated; environmental effects like wind and ice; crappy security monitors; no one watching the monitors when they should (or using the system to watch things they shouldn’t); constricted network bandwidth or other network conflicts; etc.

Regardless of the reason or where the fault lies, how do you think users or authorities will feel about the surveillance system in question when it fails to meet their needs for anything from verifying an intrusion to identifying a perpetrator? Not fondly. Consider how many high-profile instances have been plastered on mainstream media explaining that cameras were present but were not recording or similar, or maybe they were recording and they air footage that looks like it was shot through a tunnel during a snowstorm. What great promotion for our industry!

On the other side of the spectrum, if the system performs optimally and is used properly, today’s imaging technology and proliferation of distribution media make the ACLU’s worries of the past seem as quaint as silent movies being chastised for showing too much ankle. With crystal-clear digital images and YouTube, suddenly those watchdogs don’t seem all that paranoid.

Recently a homeowner who was fed up with being a multiple burglar victim had an expensive video surveillance system installed in his home. When he was again burglarized, he posted the entire clip of the man stealing his valuables and ransacking his house on YouTube in the hope someone might recognize the perp and help lead to his apprehension. While the notion of large-scale community policing like this is intriguing, it opens up a huge can of worms – particularly with how far technology has outstripped the ability for courts to keep up with timely and relevant decisions. And, skilled lawyers can undermine the credibility of video evidence by introducing the slightest doubt of its validity, which is not that difficult to do considering how easily digital images can be altered and the networked world’s vulnerability to hacking.

Consider another recent example in which footage at a nursing home revealed gross mistreatment of patients, including a man being ignored for 22 hours while workers played cards, watched TV and allowed him to die. Hopefully, that will lead to severe punishment for all concerned; however it underscores a larger issue. As this tremendous proliferation of surveillance systems capture and record high volumes of heinous acts, how will employers, authorities, courts, prisons, etc. process and keep up with it all? The hope, of course, is that it will lead to a dramatic reduction in a lot of nefarious behavior, but human nature will always have a dark side and a criminal element will always exist. Could this lead to overlooking some of the lesser crimes? Where will the lines be drawn? Could it even create some negative backlash toward providers of surveillance systems for creating “problems” for these people?

For most of you, in your daily business routines, you may not have a lot of time to really think a whole lot about these kinds of issues. But I urge you to raise your level of awareness and keep abreast of such developments. Not only is it critical for the long-term, big-picture future of your company but because you are part of something much larger than simply selling and installing video security systems. As an industry, particularly one based on safeguarding people and property, we have a responsibility to do all we can to make sure we are doing what’s best for America as well as our businesses. Handled right, there is no question video surveillance holds the promise to do so much on both counts.

As always, thanks for reading and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Scott Goldfine



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