The History of Video Surveillance

Mention video surveillance and most people think of video cameras mounted in the corners of train stations and banks or private detectives video taping an erring spouse for a messy divorce case. The truth is that the history of video surveillance is much more complex and goes back much farther than most people realize.

If you consider video in the simplest of terms, video surveillance began with simple closed circuit television monitoring. As early as 1965, there were press reports in the United States suggesting police use of surveillance cameras in public places. In 1969, police cameras were installed in the New York City Municipal Building near City Hall. The practice soon spread to other cities, with closed circuit television (CCTV) systems watched by officers at all times.

Analog beginnings spur video surveillance

When video cassette recorders hit the market, video surveillance really hit its stride. Analog technology using taped video cassette recordings meant surveillance could be preserved on tape as evidence. The seventies saw an explosion around the world in the use of video surveillance in everything from law enforcement to traffic control and divorce proceedings.

England installed video surveillance systems in four major Underground Train Stations in 1975 and began monitoring traffic flow on major highway arteries about the same time. In the United States, the use of video surveillance wasn't quite as prevalent until the 1980's for public areas, but store owners and banks quickly understood the value of it.

Businesses that were prone to theft, including banks, mini-marts and gas stations, began mounting video surveillance systems as a deterrent and in hopes of apprehending thieves, particularly in high crime areas.

The insurance industry also found video surveillance compelling worker's compensation fraud, bogus accident claims and a variety of other cases began to turn in the industry's favor when they could provide tapes of supposedly disabled workers doing the limbo at a family reunion.

For the private citizen, analog technology was primarily used in the 1970's and 1980's for capturing the worst side of human nature cheating spouses and poor parenting. Private detectives were able to provide more graphic and compelling evidence of affairs and parental stupidity with film than with still shots, and video tapes became frequent evidence in family court.

The drawback in many cases was that after a while, owners and employees would become complacent and not change the tapes daily or the tapes would wear out after months of being re-used. There was also the problem of recording at night or in low light. While the concept was good, the technology hadn't yet peaked. The next step was the Charged Coupled Device camera (CCD), which used microchip computer technology. These new cameras broadened the practical applications of video surveillance by allowing low light and night recording possible.

In the 1990's another advancement in the history of video surveillance made great strides in practicality Digital Multiplexing. When digital multiplexer units became affordable it revolutionized the surveillance industry by enabling recording on several cameras at once (more than a dozen at time in most cases). Digital multiplex also added features like time-lapse and motion-only recording, which saved a great deal of wasted videotape.

By the mid-1990's, ATM's across the United States and in most parts of the world had video cameras installed to record all transactions. After the first attack on the World Trade Center in February of 1993, the New York Police Department, FBI and CIA all install surveillance cameras throughout the area. Soon many countries are also using either CCTV or video taped surveillance to cover major sporting events that could be potential hot spots, including the World Cup Soccer games at Giants Stadium in 1994.

Digital makes video surveillance faster, clearer, more efficient

Digital video surveillance made complete sense as the price of digital recording dropped with the computer revolution. Rather than changing tapes daily, the user could reliably record a month's worth of surveillance on hard drive because of compression capability and low cost.

The images recorded digitally were so much clearer than the often grainy images recorded with analog that recognition was immediately improved for police, private investigators and others utilizing video surveillance for identification purposes. With digital technology you could also manipulate the images to improve clarity even further by adding light, enhancing the image, zooming in on frames, etc.

The second wave of increased video surveillance corresponded with the emergence of digital in the United States. From 1997 on, police departments across the country installed more and more video surveillance cameras in public buildings, housing projects and areas like New York's Washington Square Park. The NYPD also began using mobile surveillance vans at political rallies and other large gatherings (including festivals and parades) under the auspices of the Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU).

In-home use soars with advent of nanny cams

As more women went back to full-time careers in the 90's, digital video surveillance manufacturers found a niche market that hadn't previously been tapped monitoring what was going on at home when parents were gone. The nanny cam was a huge success, providing a way for parents to observe what nannies and housekeepers were really doing while at home with the kids.

The popularity of these cameras pushed the industry to develop ever-smaller, higher resolution cameras that could be hidden almost anywhere. The result was a boon to industry development, with new versions of digital video surveillance cameras coming out nearly every month.

9/11 redefines video surveillance for the future

Nothing changed the concept of or the public's awareness of video surveillance as much as the tragic events of September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists. Where once people saw video surveillance as an issue that might never affect them, it was now an issue of immediate and lasting importance.

Software developers began refining programs that would enhance video surveillance, including facial recognition programs that could compare various key facial feature points in order to match recorded faces to known mug shots or photographs of terrorists or criminals. While the earlier versions weren't always reliable, the later versions became more refined and were phased into use by law enforcement in some areas. In May of 2002, the United States Parks Service installed face recognition software on the computer video surveillance cameras at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

That same year, the Sydney International Airport in Australia installed SmartGate, an automated border crossing system used for all airline crew members. Using photo biometrics, the video surveillance systems scans the crew member's face and compares it to the passport photo and confirms the match in less than ten seconds, speeding the border process markedly.

In December of 2003, Royal Palm Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona installed face recognition video surveillance as a pilot program for tracking missing children and registered sex offenders. It has split the community, but is supported by many in favor of it as a potential way to track abductors and child molesters.

The Internet revolution in video surveillance

The internet has enabled video surveillance to be instituted virtually anywhere and be watched from anywhere in the world. With satellites bouncing signals around the globe, you can now watch anyone anywhere from your laptop. The eye in the sky is a reality with digital streaming video.

Sadly, the least common denominator in streaming video is the peek-a-boo industry of amateur porn sites that have proliferated on the web, but these real-time streaming videos use the same technology as many genuine surveillance operations.

Streaming video is set up as a remote system so that you can monitor your site from anywhere in the world with Internet access because the images are video archived on a remote web server. The quality is outstanding, with high compression (1800:1 in some cases) for storage and features like motion-activation and email alerting when there is activity if you wish. The Internet has truly revolutionized video surveillance by removing all boundaries for viewing anywhere in the world.

What does the future hold for video surveillance?

The newest trendy, must-have fun gadget for consumers these days is the picture phone that can instantly send snapshots and streaming video to family and friends with just a click. What those fun television ads don't say is that those telephones can just as easily be used for video surveillance. Nearly everyone has a cell phone in their hands these days, so someone standing on a street corner is so unremarkable that virtually anyone could be filming you without your knowledge.

Rather than mounting obtrusive cameras, future law enforcement agencies may begin using these phones as integrated devices, combining video surveillance with public phones in one package for 24/7 public watch dogging. Police officers and federal agents may eventually be issued phones with streaming video so that they can immediately send pics of suspects they are tailing back to a database for matching against a face recognition program. When new Amber alerts are issued, video clips could be sent to all law officers quickly and efficiently.

It's clear that with digital technology and streaming video won't moved into the era of being able to conduct comprehensive video surveillance and store the resulting evidence indefinitely. We can reach around the world or across the street with surveillance equipment, but we are still making advances, as the new video cell phones clearly illustrate. The future is sure to see even greater strides that will eventually become part of the history of video surveillance.

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