In U.S., Calls Grow for U.K.-Style Security Cameras
Britain dropped its terror threat rating from "critical" to "severe." Police say they have arrested all the key suspects in last week's series of failed car bombings, and that there's no imminent danger of additional attacks.
Eight people have been detained in the investigation that has stretched from London to Brisbane, Australia. Cell phones recovered from the cars were critical to cracking the case. Security officials also are crediting a national network of surveillance cameras.
Those government closed-circuit cameras captured videos of the Glasgow airport bombing that by now, just about everyone has seen.
There are so many of the cameras in Britain that Scotland Yard can literally track the movements of every single car in the country.
The system can store data for up to two years, so it essentially creates a massive database of everything moving on British roads. American law enforcement would love to have that kind of system in this country as they try to fight terrorism.
But if you had asked Miami Police Chief John Timoney if he wanted that kind of system just six years ago — when he was the top cop in Philadelphia — he would have said no, it was too intrusive.
"When they originally suggested it back in 1999, when I was a police commissioner there, personally, I was opposed to it," he said. " I was not in favor of it. I have changed my mind."
The turning point for Timoney was the July 2005 subway bombings in London. That's when he told a colleague in Miami that if the subway bombers showed up on closed circuit television, he would be a convert to the system.
"And sure enough, all four came up," said Timoney. "And not just did they come up on CCTV, but they were able to track their movements from Leeds on down into London, and it was very valuable in the investigation."
The Glasgow investigation appears to be unfolding in very much the same way.
American police chiefs like William Bratton in Los Angeles say this kind of system is vital if the U.S. is to fight terrorism effectively. The U.S. only has a fraction of the UK's cameras, but airport video helped the FBI track the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"There was a lot of camera footage of those people coming into the airline terminals," said Bratton. "There is an example of how those cameras can help you reconstruct and help you identify, and help you, in particular, identify not individuals but groups. And that was certainly the case in the London subway bombings, you could see all four of those characters coming into the station together."
Civil liberties advocates have always been against these kinds of surveillance systems. The ACLU's Barry Steinhardt is not convinced that the potential benefits of surveillance can justify the invasion of privacy that such a system represents.
"The costs are high not only in terms of dollars — dollars that could be better spent elsewhere," Steinhardt said. "But the cost of pervasive video surveillance includes the potential for tracking innocent people, it includes voyeurism — police officers and others using these cameras looking for attractive women, for example, and other abuses. And it could really have a tremendously chilling effect on our public life."
Chief John Timoney used to share those concerns. But now he thinks that technology has come so far it can curb those kinds of abuses.
"In the olden days – the olden days meaning six, eight, 10 years ago — even John Timoney had concerns about privacy – the storage of these things, how the videos would be used," he said. "I think most of those concerns have been dealt with."
He says the digital cameras mean there is safer cataloguing of the videos themselves, and a computer can track anyone who might be making illicit copies.
American law enforcement is envious of something else Scotland Yard has too: easier rules for tracking e-mails or ferreting out information on a cell phone SIM card. They don't need court orders to eavesdrop. That's something many American law enforcement officials would like in their terrorism toolbox of the future.
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