The great surveillance boom

April 26, 2013, 8:56 PM UTC

Video surveillance is already big business. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, expect it to get even bigger.

FORTUNE — Video surveillance is big business. Expect it to get bigger. After law enforcement used closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to help identify last week’s Boston bombing suspects, lawmakers and surveillance advocates renewed calls for increased numbers of cameras nationwide.

“We need more cameras, and we need them now,” ran a Slate headline.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) agrees. In an interview the day after the bombings with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he called for more video surveillance so that we can “stay ahead of the terrorists.”

“So yes, I do favor more cameras,” said King, who sits on the U.S. House Homeland Security and Intelligence committees and has also called for increased monitoring of Muslim Americans. “They’re a great law enforcement method and device. And again, it keeps us ahead of the terrorists, who are constantly trying to kill us.”

Law enforcement officials in New York are almost certain to oblige. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly wants to “increase significantly” the amount of surveillance equipment in Manhattan, which already has one of the country’s most robust systems.

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The argument for greater surveillance is straightforward. Horrible events in places like Boston remind us that we’re vulnerable. The best way to limit events like last week’s bombings, the argument goes, is to accept 24-hour surveillance in public spaces. And when you see someone maimed by bomb shrapnel, privacy concerns sound coldly abstract.

No amount of security can completely eliminate risk, so it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Are 10,000 cameras really twice as good as 5,000? In tragedy’s aftermath, it can be tough to have a serious conversation about how much to invest. But when the goal is to push risk as close to zero as possible, spending can asymptotically stretch into infinity.

Bigger than TARP and the New Deal

The U.S. is no stranger to this dilemma. In response to security concerns after 9/11, Americans witnessed the growth of a massive domestic security apparatus, fueled by federal largesse. According to Tomdispatch’s Mattea Kramer and Chris Heilman, post-9/11 federal spending on homeland security exceeds $790 billion. That’s larger than TARP and, when adjusted for inflation, the New Deal.

Exactly how much the U.S. has spent on domestic surveillance is murky. Municipalities aren’t particularly keen on sharing how many cameras they’ve installed. And homeland security grant funding, in many cases, does not require a line-item accounting of how cities have used federal funds.

Nevertheless, U.S. investment has helped fuel the growth of a global video surveillance industry. According to a 2011 report by Publications, a market research firm, the video surveillance market was slated to grow from $11.5 billion in 2008 to $37.5 billion in 2015.

The post-9/11 investment legacy is apparent in the near-ubiquitous presence of law enforcement CCTV cameras. For instance, New York City has more than 4,000 cameras in Manhattan alone, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Chicago’s linked public and private security cameras number around 10,000. But based on international comparisons, there’s still a lot of room for U.S. surveillance to grow. In London — the Xanadu of winking, digital eyes — surveillance cameras total an estimated half-million.

In recent years, however, the spigot of U.S. federal funding for state and local security has tightened. Homeland security grants earmarked for states dropped from $2 billion in 2003 to $294 million last year. With federal budget sequestration coming into effect, those funds may be further squeezed.

Rep. King fretted at the lack of federal commitment. The war against terror is not over, he told MSNBC. “And it’s foolhardy to be making cuts in Homeland Security …”

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Critics say too much of the money has been directed to small states and that grant programs lack suitable oversight. Too much money, they say, has been frittered away.

Indeed, in the years after 9/11, some expenditures were spectacularly brainless. An Indiana county used its $300,000 Electronic Emergency Message Boards — to be used solely to alert the community of, you know, emergencies — to advertise the volunteer fire department’s fish fry. Western Michigan counties used homeland security dollars to purchase 13 $900 Sno-Cone machines.

Plenty of eyes. What about brains?

Waste aside, the question is whether surveillance investment can actually make Americans safer. When the Boston bombing suspects appeared on CCTV footage, some commentators saw it as evidence of the value of dense surveillance.

Except Boston is not a heavily surveiled city. Compared to New York or Chicago, it’s a fly-weight and lacks the centralized, government-coordinated surveillance systems of other urban areas. As detailed in a December 2011 report released by the ACLU of Massachusetts, there are at least 55 law-enforcement cameras in Boston, 92 in surrounding cities, and approximately 600 in the metro system. Last year, Massachusetts received only $4 million in state homeland security grants. In per capita terms, it ranked 34th in the country in homeland security grant spending.

Yet in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings, residents and law enforcement responded valiantly. A range of surveillance methods were used: public and private CCTV cameras, cell phone cameras, eyewitnesses. The suspects were quickly identified and killed or apprehended. If Boston had twice as many cameras, or 10 times as many, would the suspects have been identified more quickly? Would a larger, more centralized surveillance system have deterred them? Perhaps most importantly, would law enforcement have been able to prevent the bombs from going off in the first place?

According to critics of surveillance, cameras aid investigation and apprehension in the aftermath, not the prevention, of acts of terrorism. In London, which Rudy Giuliani called the “Hollywood studio” of surveillance, cameras played an instrumental role in quickly identifying the 7/7 bombers. Sadly, it was only after the fact.

“What we saw in Boston largely confirmed what we already knew,” said Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. “Cameras are ineffective at the prevention and deterrence of serious crime. They can be very effective at solving crime.”

‘Minority Report,’ here we come

Advocates of surveillance point to advancements in technology as proof that cameras will, in the future, enhance response and assist prevention. Leaders of video surveillance — companies like Lockheed Martin (LMT) and Northrop Grumman (NOC) — are shifting the industry from analog to digital, and into the uncanny, science-fiction realm of smart cameras.

The future of surveillance is “video analytics,” where computers will automatically analyze camera feeds to count people, register temperature changes, and, via statistical algorithms, identify suspicious behavior. No technicians required. Up to this point, surveillance has been limited by personnel: For surveillance to be useful in real time, someone has to keep an eye on all those CCTV feeds.

And there’s growing demand. A ReportsNReports analysis estimated the size of the smart surveillance and video analytics global market at $13.5 billion in 2012; it’s expected to reach $39 billion by 2020.

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The promise of video analytics has been oversold in the past. And yet the move toward increasingly elaborate — and concentrated — urban surveillance seems inevitable.

Don’t expect much public opposition, either. While American aversion to the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) blunted efforts to employ surveillance drones domestically, Americans seem less bothered by security cameras. They haven’t been used as high-profile tools to kill foreigners on the other side of the world. Domestic drone use feels like the government is pointing its weapons at us. Cameras are permissible because they’re banal.

And, in fact, they’re already here. By the thousands. There will be thousands more.

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