Digital video surveillance has become a staple of security systems used by banks, supermarkets and other businesses in the past few years because the technology produces better quality video that is easier and cheaper to archive than tapes. The technology's Achilles' heel, however, has been its rudimentary search capabilities that use video time stamps to help locate specific footage. This is changing, as technology companies pour resources into making video search engines that they hope will do for surveillance footage what Google, Yahoo and other search engines have done in making the Web's vast resources more accessible.

The ability to search archived video captured from numerous locations and aggregated in a single computer server vastly improves crime-fighting capabilties. Sophisticated software that can identify people's faces as well as the specific size, shape or color of an object makes surveillance footage useful to broader applications such as customer service and marketing. To a consumer, the prospect of having every aspect of a shopping trip or hotel stay chronicled may be unsettling and strike some as a major loss of privacy, but it is happening nonetheless.

By the end of the month, Hilton Americas–Houston will finish installing a searchable digital video surveillance to keep a closer eye on the check-in desks, lobby, parking garages and other public areas in its 1,200-room hotel. Hilton has invested more than $100,000 since the beginning of the year to purchase and install three such systems made by San Francisco–based 3VR Security, Inc. Most of these new cameras replaced existing cameras, although the hotel slightly modified camera placement to create better angles for capturing faces and license plates.

3VR enables its users to search digital video by time, location, individual camera, motion, color and other characteristics. Hilton Americas has been testing 3VR's technology since November, even using it to find lost luggage for hotel guests by sifting through surveillance video using colors and shapes as criteria, says John Alan Moore, the hotel's director of security and life safety. Long investigations can  require Moore and his staff to put in several 16-hour workdays to solve. "Now we can do it in a day or day and a half," he says.

Each of the 3VR searchable video recording systems that Hilton Americas is installing has 16 cameras. In addition to providing security, the hotel wants to use the technology to monitor a number of other activities, Moore says. If a guest claims his car was damaged while parked in the hotel's garage, Moore and his team will be able to determine whether the car left the garage at any time and in what condition, for example.

Hilton is also turning its surveillance inward, using the digital cameras to track the comings and goings of its 700 staff members. The hotel can use 3VR and facial-recognition software to monitor the building's employee-only entrance to ensure it is being used by authorized personnel only. Moore says this was more of a preemptive move and not done because of a problem the hotel was having with nonemployees gaining access to areas of the hotel off limits to them. Still, another use for the technology has been to keep tabs on employees as they punch the clock to ensure their time cards are accurate.

3VR's technology works by placing a numeric value on every object—a face or license plate, for example—that enters a video frame and saving those numeric values, which can later be used to hunt for that object in other video feeds. "The image is stored as a series of points, each with a different value, similar to the way a thumbprint is digitized and stored," says 3VR founder and chairman Steve Russell. With some modification, 3VR's technology could have uses beyond surveillance, including video and film editing as well as YouTube or Vimeo navigation, although the company says it has no plans to go in that direction at this time.

Union Savings Bank has likewise deployed 3VR in all of its 18 branches throughout Connecticut. Banks can use 3VR in a number of ways, including investigations of fraudulent transactions. If, for example, a bank fraud investigator is searching for video taken at the time a certain account was accessed fraudulently, the investigator types the illicit transaction's number (which includes the teller's location within the bank) into 3VR's search engine and receives a list of thumbnail images representing video taken of the teller booth in question from different cameras and at different angles. Now the investigator can see what the suspect looks like and use an image of the suspect to explore the bank's archived video from different branches to see if this person has shown up elsewhere in recent weeks or months. The investigator can also set system alerts that notify bank security whenever this person enters a branch.

Although there are many makers of digital surveillance cameras and the software to manage them, search capabilities are not usually part of the packages. In addition to 3VR, IBM offers a video search service through its Smart Surveillance Solution. Pathmark supermarkets and Kohl's department stores have both used this service for security as well as to study customer behavior so the businesses can improve store layouts and promotional placement.