Atlanta under surveillance

10,000 security cameras will soon blanket the city. Do you care?

In a dark room several stories above one of downtown’s busiest thoroughfares, four Atlanta police officers watch local surveillance footage. The real-time video filters in from hundreds of cameras, some of which are state-of-the-art enough to read a cop’s badge from dozens of feet above. This is the Loudermilk Video Integration Center. It’s part of Operation Shield, Atlanta’s massive surveillance program linking more than 700 cameras throughout downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead. Inside the complex, APD officers vigilantly observe city street scenes captured by any one of Atlanta’s hundreds of eyes in the sky. That includes the lone, inconspicuous camera keeping watch atop the Flying Biscuit at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, and the one sitting next to the Hard Rock Cafe’s neon guitar sign at Peachtree Street and Andrew Young International Boulevard

The heart of Atlanta is wired more than many people realize. In total, an estimated 400 public cameras monitor the city. A commuter making the 3.6-mile drive from Georgia State University to Atlantic Station passes more than 60 cameras. It’s clear that the city owns some of those surveillance devices perched above numerous Peachtree Street intersections. In addition, many local businesses and organizations have privately owned cameras installed on their property. But it’s not always clear who’s watching, why they’re monitoring you, or if a camera is actually recording.

Our society has largely moved past the Orwellian paranoia that once dominated conversations about privacy. People practically everywhere are embracing social media, a mode of communication that largely discourages discretion. The new norm includes revealing personal details online or sharing the exact location of where you had fish tacos for lunch. Today, Atlantans are more likely to shake their fists at a Facebook privacy notice than they are to show up at a protest about surveillance cameras.

For better or worse, fears of Big Brother have diminished, but that doesn’t mean widespread monitoring has disappeared. In fact, it’s increased. Atlanta is now under surveillance more than at any point in the city’s history. And, if things go according to Operation Shield’s plan, more than $50 million will be spent over the next five years to install and link 10,000 cameras across the city — roughly one for every 43 Atlantans.

Access to the Loudermilk Video Integration Center is limited to select cops with a high level of security clearance. An authorized police officer meets approved visitors in the lobby and escorts them into an elevator and up several floors. After a retina scan grants her access, the guide shepherds the guests through several doors outfitted with security card readers.

The center, which is named in honor of the family that donated $1 million to help build the facility, is relatively modest, comprising one large room on a floor where hundreds of other APD employees work. There are several desks, each equipped with a triptych of computer monitors. The desks all face a mammoth wall blanketed with more than 20 screens. A couple of television displays in the background have CNN on as the officers gaze upon the city’s bustling streets in real time.

Deputy Chief Erika Shields, a 17-year APD veteran, has overseen the surveillance center since it went live in August 2011. On an average day, four active-duty officers watch over these video feeds of primarily downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead. Officers assigned to the VIC have all “worked the street” at one point, and possess an understanding of how to put cases together.

Shields views the VIC as an extension of traditional police work. But Atlanta Police Foundation President and CEO Dave Wilkinson, who has masterminded Atlanta’s surveillance plan since 2007, contends that Operation Shield will soon be the most “effective” and “robust” video surveillance system in the United States.

“It’s really the future of policing and a paradigm shift from that ‘boots-on-the-street’ style of policing, which we’ll always have, to a more analytical, data-driven approach,” he says.

Wilkinson says that the citywide surveillance system will eventually “touch every part of the 131 square miles” of Atlanta. That means up to 10,000 cameras over the next five years, all integrated into the VIC’s massive network.

Wilkinson also wants to see several key technological improvements, such as a device that could extract data from a 911 call or sensors that can pinpoint where gunshots were fired, to help make the center even more efficient. Such upgrades would enable “triggered” cameras to show up automatically on a VIC officer’s video screen, calling attention to an ongoing crime or suspicious activity.

The VIC touts one of the nation’s fastest-growing surveillance networks. As new cameras continue to be linked with the center, its scope is approaching the size of systems found in much larger cities, such as Chicago and New York. Currently, Atlanta’s system is most comparable to the Baltimore Police Department’s CitiWatch network.

In October, Forbes named Atlanta the sixth most dangerous city in the United States with more than 200,000 residents. The ranking was based on 2011 statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports database. Neither Chicago nor New York was listed, and Baltimore — a city long considered one of the most dangerous in America — was rated slightly safer than Atlanta.

BPD Spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, citing the Urban Institute’s three-year study of Baltimore’s 600 video cameras, says that the initiative reduced crime by 25 percent in areas under surveillance. While Baltimore’s increased safety isn’t entirely due to CitiWatch, Guglielmi thinks that surveillance cameras definitely played a role in curbing crime.

“It makes the BPD extremely more efficient and more vigilant — hyper vigilant almost,” Guglielmi says. “People want cameras in their neighborhoods. People feel safer with cameras.”

What separates Operation Shield from Baltimore’s effort is that Atlanta’s camera network predominantly relies on linking public and private cameras from across the city. Not only do officers watch cameras owned by the APD, but they can also tap surveillance systems throughout the CNN Center and the AmericasMart, in addition to networks operated by civic organizations such as Midtown Alliance and Central Atlanta Progress. The collaborative approach has helped lower costs associated with what’s already a multimillion dollar operation. Wilkinson expects the share to balance out to about 50-50 in the future.

The Georgia World Congress Center Authority has more than 100 cameras across its 200-acre campus. It also has an arrangement with the APD to share access to each other’s cameras.

William Shannon, the GWCCA’s director of public safety since 2008, explains that “they can view our cameras. They don’t have control, but they can view them. We don’t have control of their cameras, but we can view them.”

Shannon says this helps him better protect the convention center and Centennial Olympic Park’s visitors while also allowing the APD to keep better tabs on the complex.

Not every organization, however, wants to share the details of its involvement with Operation Shield. For instance, the CNN Center might allow the APD to monitor its cameras in case of an incident like last month’s fake bomb threat. Turner Properties, which owns the building, declined to speak with CL, but a spokeswoman did say in a statement that camera angles inside the CNN Center were “carefully selected” and only focus on areas within the general public’s view.

CAP’s Dave Wardell, whose small legion of safari-hat wearing ambassadors assist the police in monitoring cameras covering downtown’s 220 blocks at the Zone 5 precinct, thinks cameras provide the neighborhood’s workers, tourists, and residents with a sense of safety. Although he recognizes the concerns that might arise from large surveillance systems, he’s noticed a shift in attitudes toward the privately funded cameras he oversees.

“Everybody used to think cameras were something different. Now, it’s bad if you don’t have them,” Wardell says. “It’s been warmly embraced by the business community, particularly embraced by the residents who live here. They love having a camera because they like the increased security and police presence”

Col. Wayne Mock, who leads the Midtown Alliance’s Midtown Blue patrol, estimates that the private security force’s 52-camera surveillance network covers about 90 percent of his jurisdiction. He stresses that his operation uses surveillance in the name of public safety, only monitoring areas within what’s considered public domain.

“We’re looking at traffic, and traffic is public safety,” he says of the system, which the APD also accesses. “We have no cameras specifically set to monitor private property.”

According to Shields, there are places where having access to a camera fits the mission. In other locations, particularly areas considered outside public domain, she doesn’t want to encroach on privacy unless it’s necessary.

“If Georgia State has an exterior camera that’s picking up a city street, we would like to view that on a daily basis,” she says. “If they have a camera in a dorm lobby, I absolutely do not want to view that unless there’s an armed gunman in there and has hostages.”

Robbie Friedmann, a professor emeritus of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University, thinks there’s a fine line as to when and where the cameras serve a purpose. He says that the public has a general distrust as it is, which means that it’s essential for the Atlanta police and other organizations to “enhance” its trust.

“Building trust is an ongoing process and it’s always being tested,” he says. “If you see a pattern of abuse, you’re only going to reduce trust. If you start seeing that a camera, say on Edgewood and Auburn, saved a life of someone who collapsed in the street, then you see value.”

As the APD’s surveillance coverage grows, officers will soon be able to see beyond downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead. Wilkinson emphasizes that the expansion will involve “close coordination” with business and community groups, including signed memoranda of understanding with the police, throughout the process. That outreach should begin sometime during the next six to nine months once the APD starts laying fiber optic cables throughout parts of southwest Atlanta, where they foresee more cameras joining the network.

“Everyone is basically waiting in line to integrate their cameras as quickly as we can do it,” he says. “The reality is that no one has pushed back on this at all from the business community.”

In September, MARTA announced it would install cameras on its buses, trains, and mobility vans. About 25 buses have been outfitted so far. While the transit system is not currently partnering with Operation Shield, MARTA Police Sgt. Ashton Greene says that the early results bode well for its security expansion.

“It’s proven to be a great investigative tool,” he says. “When people know that their actions in a public area are going to be recorded, it serves as a deterrent. It’s not a panacea for all nuisance behavior, but it is a layer of security.”

MARTA has also set up public view monitors — 17-inch screens that show real-time camera footage to riders. In doing so, the transit agency has heightened people’s awareness of their surroundings, something Greene says improves individuals’ behavior.

“We’ve had a patron get on a bus and he’s got headphones on playing very loudly,” Greene says. “The bus operator asks the passenger to turn it down and he ignores the operator. He goes and sits down and some other patrons are giving him dirty looks. After ignoring everybody, he looks up and sees himself on a public view monitor. He notices that and slowly turns the headphones down.”

As Greene notes, surveillance can go beyond helping prevent crime to alter citizens’ everyday behavior — a side effect that can have both positive, and negative, consequences.

In January 2009, a popular bartender named John Henderson was shot and killed during an early morning robbery at the Standard, a Grant Park bar off of Memorial Drive. The slaying was the breaking point for many Atlantans fed up with the home invasions, flat-screen TV thefts, and broken car windows that sparked a citywide call for increased public safety. In addition to the monthly rallies to raise awareness about public safety and vigils to memorialize victims, the use of security systems, including home surveillance cameras, became more prevalent.

Jason Cent was among a number of homeowners who took security measures into their own hands. Shortly after Henderson’s murder, the Ormewood Park resident set up a three-camera security system in his home. In addition to keeping watch over his property, the cameras have helped him and his neighbors track down crime in the surrounding area, from a private contractor hitting a mailbox to the attempted kidnapping of a nearby resident.

Cent has grown to appreciate his home security system since it yielded results following the initial crime wave in his community. He, along with some of his neighbors, are “perfectly fine” with giving up some privacy in the name of safety.

“My attitude probably has changed since I realized the value that the cameras have provided to me and my neighbors,” Cent says. “I think before that, my attitude might have been that I don’t want the government watching over my shoulder. Since I’ve taken a more active role — as, say, a ‘block captain’ — then it’s been invaluable.”

Not everyone agrees with Cent. Atlantans are largely unaware of the many cameras operating throughout the city, and it’s not always evident when and where we’re being watched. The devices are often in plain sight, yet discreetly blend into the surrounding urban cityscape.

“You wouldn’t know if the camera is looking at you ... unless you heard someone talking about it. If you saw a big frame camera turning around and looking at you, you’d know. But with the domes, you don’t know. It’s kind of a level of trust there — close your shades,” Wardell says with a laugh.

For some, security cameras pose a formidable threat to privacy.

“I think the natural inclination is to despise this ‘Big Brother is watching you’ approach,” says Frank Vandall, an Emory University law professor and privacy expert. “To any member of the ACLU, there would be a feeling that it’s an invasion of privacy to have the police watching you continually.”

“We have definite concerns. Most of our concern is finding out how this data is being stored, how it’s being shared,” ACLU Staff Attorney Chad Brock says. “We want to make sure that people’s information is being protected and we want to make sure that there is some sort of oversight in place to ensure that they’re being used in the correct way.”

The legal organization stresses the importance of having transparency policies surrounding camera use. According to an APD spokesman, the VIC links surveillance footage to any officer who observes archived recordings. The APD has also adopted a 14-day policy for retaining video. That’s slightly more lax than Midtown Blue’s 10-day rule, but stricter than Baltimore’s month-long procedure.

Friedmann, who’s studied surveillance policies across the country and overseas, including Israel and the United Kingdom, says that most police departments should automatically discard noncriminal footage after “60 or 90 days.” Anything longer, he says, lends itself to abuse. Vandall thinks it’s “silly” to actually believe that those guidelines will be enforced.

“You know it’s going to be kept forever,” he says. “It’s going to be valuable just as it was used in England, backing it up for months and seeing what happens on a corner. They’re not going to destroy the tapes. I think anyone who believes that lives in a bubble.”

Friedmann thinks such regulations ensure that citywide surveillance allows for public safety to be maintained, while also adhering to rules that preserve personal privacy. The New York Police Department, for example, has thoroughly outlined and shared its policies for its new Domain Awareness System. He also re-emphasizes the need for balance between public safety and privacy, driving home the point that any security initiative will only be effective if used correctly.

“If you take the right dose of medication, it’s fine. If it’s not done in the right dose, then it can become poisonous,” he says. “It’s not the strategy itself, but it’s how you use or abuse it.”

Shields understands that the city’s surveillance is “not going to sit well” with all Atlantans, but the department says it remains committed to obeying the law. Wilkinson, like other staunch surveillance supporters, insists that most privacy concerns are either unfounded or misguided.

“The issue of the violation of privacy ... there’s a tendency to panic and exaggerate unnecessarily,” Friedmann says. “This doesn’t mean that the concerns are not legitimate, whether it’s grounded or not is a whole different question.”

Emory University Professor Ramnath Chellappa has spent the better part of two decades researching privacy, from security cameras to Internet retailers gauging our online behavior. He contends that people are OK with giving up some privacy in exchange for a perceived increase in public safety. Of course, that’s provided there aren’t serious negative repercussions associated with privacy breaches.

“There hasn’t been noise about it because, en masse, no one has seen the negative consequences,” Chellappa says. “There hasn’t been evidence of a private firm using this information.”

Chellappa has long noticed that many people don’t fully understand their rights when it comes to personal information.

“Many people mistakenly presume that there is some kind of constitutional right to online privacy or any kind of privacy, which there isn’t,” Chellappa says. “To my understanding, there’s only the right to not have invasive search and seizure from the legal standpoint.”

In many ways, the contentious relationship between security and privacy exists no matter if we’re making our way through the heart of Atlanta or Amazon’s home page.

“There’s an inherent trade-off associated with that which we cannot shy away from,” Chellappa says. “When you post a picture on Facebook and share all this personal information, this somehow lends itself to a notion of anonymity, which is obviously not there.

“Similarly, these cameras have become so commonplace that they’ve become like utilities where we don’t know that we have electricity until it goes away,” he adds.