New York City with Microsoft Help Turns Up 'Big Brother' Instant Info Video Surveillance System


All eyes are on the London Olympics at the moment. Plus, in the run-up to the event and its security planning there was no secret made, or was there any question raised, as to the city’s claim of being the most watched, from a video surveillance perspective, metropolitan area in the world.   However, while the title for having the most cameras trained on the populace does not seem threatened at the moment, New York City may have done its friends “across the pond” one better with some capabilities it has just turned up thanks to a joint effort with Microsoft.

With a bit of fanfare, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a ceremony at the headquarters of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiation was joined by Police Commission Raymond Kelly in unveiling the Domain Awareness System (DAS).  

Effective immediately NYPD will be using DAS to leverage the power and inputs of not just the roughly 3,000 closed-circuit television cameras (many privately owned but connected to NYPD for obvious reasons) dispersed mostly around downtown Manhattan, along with data from the 2,600 radiation detectors carried by officers on patrol, and several hundred license-plate readers mounted on police cars and deployed at bridges, tunnels and key thoroughfares around the city. DAS will provide investigators with a raft of instant information about suspected bad actors. This is big data at its finest for New York’s finest.

DAS on the job

If this sounds like “Big Brother,” it is. As the popular Hall and Oates song says, “private eyes are watching you, they see your every move…” And, so are public eyes. 


However, this is much more than mere watching, and as a New Yorker who lived the horrors of 9/11 first-hand, I am delighted.  

DAS aggregates and analyzes information from all of those cameras, license-plate readers, sensors and law enforcement databases. As Commissioner Kelley remarked, the nice thing is that: “The system is a transformative tool because it was created by police officers for police officers.”   The ceremony let the press see how personnel of the initiative, located a few blocks from Ground Zero, examine feeds from surveillance cameras, alerts from license-plate readers and reports from 911 calls.

What is new here is that DAS lets investigators instantly see information including arrest records, 911 calls associated with a suspect and related crimes occurring in a particular area. It also allows investigators to map crimes to reveal patterns and track where a car associated with a suspect is located and has been in the past.

There is more. DAS information can be used to in counterterrorism efforts by allowing the NYPD to examine video feeds to determine who left a suspicious package at a location or help assess whether a radiation detector was set off naturally, by a weapon or by a harmless isotope used in medical treatments.

A good deal and a good deal more

While created for New York City, under the agreement between the city and Microsoft, New York City  will receive 30 percent of gross revenue on future sales of the system, which cost about $30 million to $40 million to develop, according to Jessica Tisch, director of policy and planning for the NYPD’s counterterrorism bureau.

Commissioner Kelly stated it well: “We realized we had the opportunity to create a powerful and coordinated domain awareness system to help us combat both terrorism and conventional crime…Not just dealing with the matters in financial system, but citywide by coordinating our alert systems with vast amounts of data. The system allows us to connect the dots by instantly tapping into the details of crime records, 911 calls, license plate readers, videotape footage and more.”

The Mayor was delighted because he believes, as he has done with other New York public/private partnerships, that sales to other cities will enable New York to “recoup all of our expenses over a period of time and maybe even make a few bucks.”

The demo

The event put DAS through its paces. The press was shown how officers were alerted to a 911 report of a suspicious package—a box with Jack Daniel’s whiskey markings found outside a Union Square theater. DAS enabled them to call up cameras within 500 feet to determine when the package was left and by whom. The package turned out to be trash that had blown away from another location.

Reactions as expected

As might be expected privacy advocates, who have already raised concerns about license-plate readers and other surveillance technology used by law enforcement authorities, expressed concerns about innocent New Yorkers getting trapped in the rush to collect information. 

To be honest, while I understand the concerns, as a native New Yorker, I actually like what the Mayor said regarding the fact that the private sector has used similar technology for years and that: “The bad guys have everything that we do too and if you really want to worry about security and freedoms, that’s the first thing…There’s a lot of evidence that there are a lot of bad guys around the world that are devoting a lot more resources than we are to taking away our freedoms.”   New York remains terrorist target numero uno and this is a nice addition to the good guys tool chest for keeping a watchful eye and being able to react quickly.

It should be noted as well that facial recognition is not being used by DAS for the time being, and that the video is only going to be stored for 30 days, according to Commissioner Kelley, who promised the drives would be wiped clean.

The idea of being safe rather than sorry applies here. The cameras and other capabilities are in place, and common sense says that given the risky world we live in it is prudent to ensure we are extracting maximum value from what can be delivered. 

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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