Big Brother's Big Business

[...] Video surveillance has become the fastest-growing industry within the major categories of electronic security—with nearly one in four major cities in America investing in new technology, analysts say. It has more than doubled in the last five years, becoming an estimated $9.2 billion business in 2005 and expected to grow to $21 billion by 2010, says Joe Freeman, a columnist for Security Technology & Design Magazine and founder and president of J.P. Freeman, a market research and consulting firm. "What we have is a huge industry that is attracting competitors from everywhere," says Freeman. "In this world of constant threat, it's almost impossible to predict what might happen. . . . But the one overarching thing that we know is that security, which used to be a quietly growing industry, is now an international attention of the first order" [...]

In New York City, a combination of government and private funds (including $200 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last year) has created a network of cameras that reaches far into the thousands, spanning subway stations, traffic signals, overhead awnings and private businesses. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the city's buses, subways and commuter trains, recently signed a multimillion-dollar contract with a major security company -- Lockheed Martin -- to add 1,000 smart cameras to the system's already 3,000-camera-strong surveillance system, said spokesman Tom Kelly. The New York City Police Department operates an additional 3,000 cameras, the majority of which reside in the city's public housing developments, said spokesman Michael Cohen. But the total number of cameras -- both public and private -- is hard to gauge.

Bill Brown, a kind of amateur surveillance-camera spotter, estimates the total number of cameras in New York City to exceed 15,000 -- a figure city officials say they have no way to verify because they lack a system of registry. But Brown, 46, who works as a proofreader, has studied the city's surveillance systems for years. On any given Sunday, you can find him leading tours through the maze of city streets that he describes as New York's "open museum" of surveillance. A member of a performance troop called the Surveillance Camera Players, he has also spent countless hours mapping -- by hand -- the city's growing camera population. On a recent trip to Manhattan's Times Square, Brown was able to point out, from a single street corner, more than 25 cameras visible to the naked eye. "People are in favor of surveillance when it's presented as a generality," says Brown. "But if you get them to look at specific cameras, then they begin to disapprove."

(Written by Jessica Bennett and published on 15 March 2006, as a web exclusive, by Newsweek.)

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