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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 May, 2004, 07:05 GMT 08:05 UK
CCTV goes wi-fi to fight crime
The technology behind street surveillance is changing, reports BBC ClickOnline's Spencer Kelly.

Westminster wi-fi CCTV
The cameras are being tested in Soho Square in London
In the UK there is one CCTV camera for every 14 people. If you are in London, you could be caught on camera up to 300 times a day.

But the cameras are expensive, and once you have installed one, and laid all the wires back to base, it is fixed and cannot move.

This means if a crime hotspot moves round the corner, you cannot see it.

Westminster City Council in London have come up with a solution - CCTV cameras without wires, which broadcast their pictures back to base using the council's new wireless network.

"The key advantage from a wi-fi network camera compared with a fixed camera system is purely the mobility, and being able to be flexible enough to deal with crimes in certain areas directly at the times that you need it," said Rob McAllister, of Westminster City Council.

Mobile access

The pilot scheme uses five discreet cameras to monitor people's comings and goings in Soho Square.

Wireless CCTV cameras make it easier and easier for more and more cameras to be installed
Shani Chakrabarti, Liberty
"Within the square we have a network of wireless LAN bridges providing blanket coverage throughout the square," said Tim Hearn of Cisco Systems which is providing some of the technology.

"Down the narrow streets, Greek Street and Frith Street, we have wi-fi pointing down those streets as well so they give us coverage down there.

"So that's a network of wireless LAN devices that we then plug into CCTV cameras, we provide access to mobile workers that will have laptops of mobiles working with them, or maybe some specialist devices.

"We're also linking into noise monitoring devices or other sensors," he said.

Privacy issues

In the testing stages, the project is using wi-fi B technology, which is cheaper and slower, and limits the quality of the video stream.

Eventually council employees will have access to council files and pictures on the move, pictures from cameras that can be moved to a new location cheaply and quickly.

CCTV control room
The cameras could be easier moved to crime hotspots
But along with the benefits of monitoring crime as it moves come concerns about just how easy it will be to watch who you want, where you want.

"Clearly, wireless CCTV cameras make it easier and easier for more and more cameras to be installed," said Shani Chakrabarti of the civil liberties group, Liberty.

"This is an indication of a wider problem with technology moving apace creating even more potential for interferences with personal privacy and the law not really catching up with the technology because we don't have a comprehensive privacy law in this country, or resources or political will devoted to enforcing privacy protection."

Privacy laws may need constant revision to keep up with technology. The current Data Protection Act already demands that cameras do not intrude on private places, something which Westminster's software cleverly adheres to.

But one industry watcher believes one obstacle may be a fundamental technical one.

"The greatest concern that this system is going to face is one of interference," said networking expert Gordon Laing.

"Interference is an issue for all wireless networks simply because so many other things use the same frequencies - microwave ovens, Bluetooth telephones, other wireless networks.

Interference won't actually shut down a network altogether, but it will reduce the speed at which it operates and the range over which it operates."

Secure network

Security is also an issue. The new wireless system involves pictures being transmitted over the air.

Council employees will be able to watch footage whilst on the move, so could others do the same thing or hack into the network?

"No system is 100% perfect, so what we have to do, as technologists, is use all of the mechanisms that we know to be able to make the network secure using what we would say is strength in depth," said Cisco's Mr Hearn.

"There's not just one mechanism used to secure the network but there's a multitude of techniques that we would use.

"Security is about technology, but it's also about process and quality, so there's a human element to this as well," he added.

"We're very good at being able to provide the technology elements to it but the users and the organisation that's using the network need to make sure that their policies and procedures are up to date to be able to cope with that."

Wireless Westminster is in its infancy, but the eventual benefits are there for all to see. You just have to make sure the security of the network is well managed.

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