Network of surveillance cameras proposed for Pittsburgh

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Video cameras scattered throughout Downtown and other neighborhoods would eventually be linked in a surveillance network, under a proposal by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

A week ago, the city sent 21 security companies an outline of a plan to cast a video surveillance web from Downtown to high-crime neighborhoods, and maybe beyond. The administration wants firms to compete this year to craft a plan and win a camera contract.

Cameras "will provide more security for the citizens," said Police Chief Nate Harper.

Video evidence can make prosecutions for everything from drunken driving to bank robbery much easier, often prompting guilty pleas, added Mr. Zappala.

Officials say they are not sure how much a surveillance network might cost, but they say they have about $3.4 million available in federal and city funds to get the program going.

The administration has set aside $3.4 million in port security money, including $2.6 million in federal funds and $862,000 in city money, for an initial phase. Federal, state and city funds could be tapped for later phases.

Though many cities are expanding camera networks, Pittsburgh's effort is much more extensive than most, and raises more questions, said Melissa Ngo, senior counsel and director of the identification and surveillance project of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"To make it so that no matter what you're doing, someone is watching -- what kind of a society is that?" she asked.

The first phase described in the city's request for information involves linking "several hundred" cameras owned by the city, county, state and private companies into a single system that can be centrally monitored.

It involves installing 28 new cameras on 14 bridges, four atop the U.S. Steel Tower, and others in Point State Park.

There are 70 or more surveillance cameras Downtown, on private buildings and on public structures like the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and the Federal Building, said Chief Harper. There are more in Oakland, on the North Shore, in East Allegheny, and in public housing communities.

"They aren't all linked at this point," he said. "We're looking at ways to link it."

Also part of the initial phase could be 48 plate recognition devices, which can read vehicle license plates and run them through databases. Two unspecified neighborhoods, and Point State Park, would get gunshot detection systems, which instantly pinpoint the location of a shooting and take pictures.

A second phase would involve deployment of more cameras Downtown.

That could make Downtown "an even safer and more hospitable place," said Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership Executive Director Mike Edwards.

A third phase would identify six-square-block areas of high-crime neighborhoods, and deploy cameras there.

"It sounds like Big Brother, but do the society and the times dictate something like that?" asked Don Patterson, executive director of the Homewood Renaissance Business Association, which hopes to revive a blighted three-block area by attracting artists and service firms. He said his target clients would probably welcome the cameras if they were accompanied by increased policing.

"That's the major thing people tell me: I'm not going anywhere where I fear for my life," he said.

The three phases are a pilot for a citywide camera system. Administration officials said there's been no decision on whether that would include residential neighborhoods.

Information from interested firms is due July 18, and the project could start in October.

London's "Ring of Steel" surveillance system, created in 1998 to protect that city's financial district against terrorism, is often cited by cities expanding their camera networks.

It was deployed in response to terrorism and urban violence, said Michael Madison, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of law with expertise in technology and privacy. In Pittsburgh, he said, "the anti-terrorism argument is really a pretext for a comprehensive surveillance system that they want to roll out over the whole city."

The city's proposal, he said, includes no guidance on who will see the information gathered, how long it will be stored, or how it will be shared, making it somewhat "Orwellian."

"The use of these cameras is lawful as long as they are used in places, like public areas, where people don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy," said John M. Burkoff, another Pitt law professor, in an e-mail.

There are limits, though, on how they're used. "They can't be used, for example, to target some particular segment of the population and not others," he wrote. "These sorts of systems often generate lawsuits raising privacy concerns, and often these lawsuits end up in compromises and adjustments to the programs."

In other cities, voyeurism and racial profiling have been documented, said Ms. Ngo. "People who are zoomed in on are disproportionately young black males."

Councilman William Peduto said there must be a "transparent set of rules on who views [video data], who's authorized to view it, and that it's not being specifically targeted" to given groups or institutions.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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