From building-blocking bollards to millimeter-wave scanners, the September 11 terrorist attacks have led to significant changes in security techniques and technology worldwide over the past decade to discourage future attacks and to avoid being surprised again. To meet these goals, law enforcement and counterterrorism operations worldwide have come to rely heavily on surveillance of public spaces. Nowhere is surveillance more pervasive in the U.S. than Lower Manhattan, home to such landmarks as the New York Stock Exchange, the World Financial Center and, of course, Ground Zero, where the new One World Trade Center Tower is under construction.

The New York Police Department's (NYPD) Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI) is a high-tech surveillance network carpeting much of the city. When the NYPD launched the program in August 2008, its goal was to create a central command center with access to surveillance feeds from more than 3,000 cameras and 100 license plate readers. The network currently includes 1,850 cameras and has expanded to Midtown Manhattan as well.

Whereas the NYPD owns and operates many of the LMSI's cameras, much of the video streaming into the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center comes from cameras installed by local businesses. "We originally started out with 15 stakeholders from the financial sector, including the Stock Exchange, Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve," says Inspector Salvatore DiPace, LMSI's commanding officer. "A year later we morphed into Midtown—30th to 60th streets, from the Hudson to the East rivers—with an additional 15 stakeholder locations."
Analytics software is playing an important role in ensuring that suspicious activity captured on video is noticed by analysts at the network's coordination center. "We want the cameras to alert to different suspicious activity and tell us what's going on," DiPace says. This could include a suspicious package left behind, a vehicle going the wrong way down a one-way street or an individual loitering in a restricted area.

All of this increased surveillance has raised the ire of civil rights organizations, in particular the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that question whether U.S. citizens are trading too many of their personal freedoms for enhanced security. The ACLU issued a report on Wednesday (pdf) addressing these concerns.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has focused its concerns specifically on the LMSI, taking the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—the program's main source of funding—to court to obtain information on, among other things, the location of cameras and license plate readers, the type of equipment being used, the timeline for implementing the security initiative as well as a list of buildings and other structures to be protected. Whereas some of this information has been made public or could be discerned simply by walking around the downtown area, Southern District of New York Judge John G. Koeltl in March ruled that DHS does not have to reveal the specific locations of all LMSI surveillance cameras.

The LMSI does have Public Security Privacy Guidelines that stipulate footage must stored for no more than 30 days if it is not being used in an investigation, although license plate information is stored for five years. If an incident occurs, law enforcement wants to be able to use video analytics to capture certain characteristics of a suspicious scene, such as the image of a person's face or a license plate, so it can be searched against other available video for a potential match. Such capabilities help the NYPD narrow down searches and save officers a lot of time and effort during an investigation, DiPace says.