California city gets video surveillance fever

City of Richmond, Calif., shows off new real-time video surveillance system that uses wireless mesh network to monitor happenings at the port and high-crime neighborhoods.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read

RICHMOND, Calif.--Taking a cue from surveillance camera-laden London, this San Francisco Bay Area city is installing security camera systems for the police and at the port to reduce crime and protect against terrorism.

The systems are being built and maintained by ADT, known for its home burglar alarm systems, and use a high-speed wireless mesh network.

Clusters of video cameras transmit data to wireless radios, which then send it over a 1-gigabit back-haul feed to servers in the Port of Richmond's security office, and for the city to police headquarters and the dispatch center. Eventually, the video will be transmitted directly into Richmond police patrol cars.

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There are 34 Internet Protocol cameras monitoring high-crime areas of Richmond, which has a population of nearly 101,000, covers 56 square miles, and is located about 15 miles northeast of San Francisco. The price tag for that installation is about $1.8 million. It is expected to be completed next month.

At the Port of Richmond, there are 82 IP cameras monitoring the port's 15 square miles of perimeter and facilities, where the city runs five terminals and 10 more are privately owned. About 19 million short tons pass through the port every year, mostly noncontainerized liquids, dry bulk products, and automobiles, making it the third-largest volume of tonnage among California ports.

The cost for the port installation, $2.3 million, was paid for by a Department of Homeland Security grant. The project was completed in March.

ADT has other wireless video security systems in place, including in a Chicago suburb and on Long Island.

During a tour of the Port of Richmond officials showed off the two server racks, which include 73 terabytes of data storage. They also demonstrated how the system's analytic software works to alert security by automatically recognizing when it detects something suspicious.

For instance, the alarm--visual on the computer only at this point--will go off if someone walks into an area which is off limits or if someone leaves something behind in an area that is open.

"The analytics recognizes certain exceptions (to pre-established rules like) if somebody jumps the fence or is loitering," said Jeff Gutierrez, a national accounts manager for ADT, which also has contracts with the London Underground, the Sydney Opera House, and Chicago and New York suburbs among many others.

Port picture
Eyes on the Port of Richmond: Click on the image above to watch a video of the security setup in one of Northern California's busiest shipping areas.

Security officials monitoring the system can then see various camera angles of the area, follow someone with the cameras and zoom in or out. The cameras can display license plates as much as a mile away, he said.

In the line of site are large crude oil and jet fuel storage tanks, across the channel from the port's office, which Norman Chan, port administrator, said are vulnerable to attack.

The port cameras are not focused on private property now, but may be used for that in the future, he said.

"All the federal and state ports are working with the Department of Homeland Security to try to make our seaports safer, better secured and less vulnerable to acts of terrorism," said Jim Matzorkis, executive director of the port. The system "allows us to see what's happening in real-time" and it creates a deterrent.

While Richmond city and port officials were showing off their new systems, the city council in Washington, D.C., rejected funding for a video surveillance system there, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Real-time video surveillance raises privacy questions, such as who has access to the data and for what purpose, he said.

"You can pan into peoples' living rooms and bedrooms. Board operators are zooming in on attractive young women. It's not a pretty picture," Rotenberg said, adding that real-time surveillance also hasn't been proven to reduce crime.

There have been recent reports that surveillance cameras don't do much to deter crime and instead have been used to investigate minor things like littering and misuse of disabled parking passes.