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New York Approaches Halfway Point for Anti-Terror Camera Network

Cameras to Catch Terrorists Triple in New York City
A security camera hangs over a subway platform at Penn Station in New York. Photographer: Peter Foley

New York City, after tripling since June the number of cameras to monitor signs of terrorism, is almost halfway to its goal of installing 3,000 of the devices as part of its security network.

The spurt in additions to the $201 million initiative, which officials said is to be completed by 2013, may represent an increased urgency to finish the project. It comes in a year that saw federal convictions starting in June based on plots to bomb Times Square, John F. Kennedy International Airport and synagogues in the Bronx.

The New York Police Department unveiled the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative in 2005 as a proposed web of cameras, license-plate readers and radiation detectors. Advocates of the effort said a terrorist strike in the 1.7 square miles south of Canal Street, like the one on Sept. 11, 2001, might send financial shockwaves across the nation and around the globe.

“This is a critical component of the nation, indeed of the world’s financial system,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, California-based policy group. “A major disruption caused by a terrorist attack inside this perimeter could have cascading economic consequences across the planet.”

About 1,300 cameras are connected to the network as of this month, according to Paul J. Browne, a spokesman for the NYPD. In June, the network, which will be spread out to include Midtown Manhattan, had only 450 cameras, New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has said.

As of February 2009, he said there were 300 cameras.

Evenly Divided

Browne said the cameras installed to date are about evenly divided between the original plan area and Midtown, which lies between Manhattan’s 30th and 60th streets. They currently include 586 subway cameras added last month in Times Square, Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal.

The system is to be 90 percent funded by the U.S. Homeland Security Department. Its projected cost has grown from $81.5 million in 2006 to $201 million, of which about $136 million was approved for spending, Browne said by e-mail.

Another $42 million has been requested, and the city will ask for the rest in the future, since the project “will take several years to complete,” said Jason Post, deputy press secretary to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and principal owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.

At a ceremony Nov. 9 at the New York City Police Museum in lower Manhattan, Kelly said the rapid expansion over the past five months is “great,” noting the recent addition of transit system cameras to the network.

Alarms and Algorithms

“These are cameras that you can use as alarms, you can put algorithms in to sound an alarm if someone leaves a package in an area for an extended period of time or if you want to go back and look at somebody in a red shirt who passed by a camera in the last 30 days,” Kelly said.

The commissioner attributed the five years it has taken to approach the midway point to complications of technology and topography.

“There’s always technology challenges,” he said. “It’s just not a question of turning on a switch. It’s a very complex environment. The topography doesn’t lend itself to a lot of the things that we want to do easily.”

“Transmissions, the camera positioning: all of that because of the layout of Lower Manhattan makes it difficult to do,” Kelly said.

‘Moving Target’

“It’s been a moving target for a long time,” City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said of the initiative. “The first goal as always is to get federal funding for things.”

Amy Kudwa, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said the department “can’t speculate on future competitive grant disbursement.”

The Lower Manhattan area is home to landmarks such as the site of the World Trade Center attacks, the New York Stock Exchange and City Hall. Midtown includes Times Square, where a Pakistani immigrant tried to detonate a car bomb in May, and the headquarters of many major U.S. banks and securities firms.

The surveillance system combines cameras, owned by the city and partners in the public and private sectors, with automated license-plate readers and biological, chemical, nuclear and radiation detectors, according to the police department.

Public ‘Stakeholders’

Fourteen business and public “stakeholders” own about 400 of the Lower Manhattan cameras, Browne said. They include the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and companies such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the fifth biggest U.S. bank by assets. The bank’s headquarters on 200 West Street are across an intersection from ground zero, where the twin towers once stood.

The police will start to add cameras from partners in Midtown next month, Browne said. The current network can accommodate 3,000 camera feeds and is designed to be expandable.

Andrea Raphael, a spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs, and Jeffrey Smith, a spokesman for the Federal Reserve Board of New York, declined to comment.

There are “memorandums of understanding that have evolved because of technology differences because all cameras are not alike,” Kelly said. “Meshing them together is not an easy thing to do.”

A command center opened two years ago in a Broadway office building a few blocks south of Wall Street. Personnel from the NYPD and its partners examine feeds from the cameras, alerts from license-plate readers and reports from 911 calls.

‘Force Multiplier’

“It’s a force multiplier” for the police, said Andrew Wartell, a security consultant who was Goldman Sachs’s representative to the project and the bank’s vice president of global security from 2004 to 2008. “They don’t have to put cameras out on the same street that a company already has cameras on to watch their own facility.”

The system is based in part on the City of London’s “Ring of Steel,” a camera network in the square-mile financial district in the 1990s after Irish Republican Army bombings.

New York’s system links cameras with a fiber-optic network, completed in July, that lets investigators search through a month’s worth of video, Kelly said.

The department this year began using analytic software in some cameras that can spot suspicious signs, such as unattended packages and movement in restricted areas, he said.

“It doesn’t do you any good to put 3,000 cameras out and then have an expectation that anyone’s going to watch any of them,” said Wartell, explaining the need for software. “That’s certainly the thing you’ve seen in London with the Ring of Steel. They have tons of cameras, but they don’t have tons of people watching.”

Times Square Attack

In the probe of the attempted May 1 bombing of Times Square, surveillance cameras caught Faisal Shahzad’s vehicle as it traveled along West 45th Street before being left at a curb near Broadway theaters, officials said. Shahzad pleaded guilty to the bombing attempt June 21 in Manhattan federal court.

In London, images from security cameras helped investigators there identify four suicide bombers who attacked that city’s transit system in July 2005, killing 52 people.

“People can say, ‘Well, the cameras in London didn’t prevent the bombings from happening,’ and that’s correct,” said Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of Lund, Sweden-based Axis Communications AB, a maker of surveillance equipment. Nilsson said he was staying in a Times Square hotel on the day of Shahzad’s attempt. “For forensics, it was invaluable to figure out where it happened and who did it.”

JFK, Synagogues

In the 2007 plot to blow up JFK Airport fuel lines and tanks, static surveillance cameras weren’t a key issue because the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the help of an informant, was already following and recording the conspirators.

This was also the case in a 2008 plan hatched by four New York men to bomb Bronx synagogues. The JFK plotters were convicted Aug. 2 in Brooklyn, New York, federal court. The Bronx conspirators were convicted in Manhattan federal court Oct. 18.

“We’re not saying technology alone is the answer, but it helps,” said Browne, the NYPD spokesman, in an e-mail.

In addition to delays tied to cuts in federal terrorism grants, the camera network also faces opposition from civil liberties advocates. The proposal invades privacy and doesn’t prevent terrorist attacks, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

‘Enormous Implications’

The group sued the NYPD and the Homeland Security Department, claiming freedom-of-information requests yielded too little data on a program with “enormous implications for privacy rights.”

The NYCLU is seeking to learn how the police will use the information, who else will see it and how long the data will be kept, according to its complaint.

The NYPD case, filed two years ago, is pending in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. The suit against Homeland Security is in New York federal court in Manhattan. The government has moved for a judgment in its favor.

“Our main concern is that it’s unlike most police activity, which is focused on people who are suspected of unlawful activity,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. “In fact, 99.99 percent of people who are captured in the system are just going to be people walking around, going about their business.”

Privacy Guidelines

Police privacy guidelines state that the cameras are aimed at public places “where no legally protected reasonable expectation of privacy exists” and stipulate that video recordings must be disposed of within 30 days unless the deputy commissioner for counterterrorism orders otherwise.

“The law is settled that there is no privacy right in a public area,” said Vallone, of New York’s city council. “None of us are thrilled about being observed in public places, but I think the vast majority of New Yorkers understand that it’s necessary.”

The government argues that the project information sought by the NYCLU is being legally withheld because it’s used for law enforcement purposes and disclosure would expose “critical infrastructure” to attack.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union representing about 22,000 city police officers, said that while cameras can help investigate a terrorist attack, “they don’t help prevent it.”

“A camera has never arrested an armed robber or thwarted a terrorist threat,” Lynch said in a statement. “You need police boots on the ground to make that happen, and with 6,000 fewer police officers on our streets than in 2001, the NYPD is already stretched too thin.”

Browne, the police spokesman, said there’s no doubt that cameras help in investigations.

Brooklyn Bridge

In 2003, cameras on the Brooklyn Bridge discouraged a possible attack there, according to federal prosecutors. Iyman Faris, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for plotting with al-Qaeda to bring down the span, sent a message to colleagues in Pakistan that the “weather is too hot,” indicating that cameras and other security measures made the plot unlikely to succeed, the U.S. said.

Browne said the efficacy of a camera network has already been proven in some New York City neighborhoods.

“While it’s harder to document when the crime hasn’t occurred because of cameras, we know that crime in public housing plummeted by a third within a year after cameras were installed,” he said.

The lawsuits are New York Civil Liberties Union v. New York City Police Department, 112145-2008, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan), and New York Civil Liberties Union v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 1:09-cv-05325, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

Download: Kelly Speaks About Manhattan Security Initiative

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