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Atlanta under surveillance

10,000 security cameras will soon blanket the city. Do you care?



In a dark room several stories above one of downtown's busiest thoroughfares, four Atlanta police officers watch local surveillance footage. The real-time video filters in from hundreds of cameras, some of which are state-of-the-art enough to read a cop's badge from dozens of feet above. This is the Loudermilk Video Integration Center. It's part of Operation Shield, Atlanta's massive surveillance program linking more than 700 cameras throughout downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead. Inside the complex, APD officers vigilantly observe city street scenes captured by any one of Atlanta's hundreds of eyes in the sky. That includes the lone, inconspicuous camera keeping watch atop the Flying Biscuit at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, and the one sitting next to the Hard Rock Cafe's neon guitar sign at Peachtree Street and Andrew Young International Boulevard

The heart of Atlanta is wired more than many people realize. In total, an estimated 400 public cameras monitor the city. A commuter making the 3.6-mile drive from Georgia State University to Atlantic Station passes more than 60 cameras. It's clear that the city owns some of those surveillance devices perched above numerous Peachtree Street intersections. In addition, many local businesses and organizations have privately owned cameras installed on their property. But it's not always clear who's watching, why they're monitoring you, or if a camera is actually recording.

Our society has largely moved past the Orwellian paranoia that once dominated conversations about privacy. People practically everywhere are embracing social media, a mode of communication that largely discourages discretion. The new norm includes revealing personal details online or sharing the exact location of where you had fish tacos for lunch. Today, Atlantans are more likely to shake their fists at a Facebook privacy notice than they are to show up at a protest about surveillance cameras.

For better or worse, fears of Big Brother have diminished, but that doesn't mean widespread monitoring has disappeared. In fact, it's increased. Atlanta is now under surveillance more than at any point in the city's history. And, if things go according to Operation Shield's plan, more than $50 million will be spent over the next five years to install and link 10,000 cameras across the city — roughly one for every 43 Atlantans.

Access to the Loudermilk Video Integration Center is limited to select cops with a high level of security clearance. An authorized police officer meets approved visitors in the lobby and escorts them into an elevator and up several floors. After a retina scan grants her access, the guide shepherds the guests through several doors outfitted with security card readers.

The center, which is named in honor of the family that donated $1 million to help build the facility, is relatively modest, comprising one large room on a floor where hundreds of other APD employees work. There are several desks, each equipped with a triptych of computer monitors. The desks all face a mammoth wall blanketed with more than 20 screens. A couple of television displays in the background have CNN on as the officers gaze upon the city's bustling streets in real time.

Deputy Chief Erika Shields, a 17-year APD veteran, has overseen the surveillance center since it went live in August 2011. On an average day, four active-duty officers watch over these video feeds of primarily downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead. Officers assigned to the VIC have all "worked the street" at one point, and possess an understanding of how to put cases together.

Shields views the VIC as an extension of traditional police work. But Atlanta Police Foundation President and CEO Dave Wilkinson, who has masterminded Atlanta's surveillance plan since 2007, contends that Operation Shield will soon be the most "effective" and "robust" video surveillance system in the United States.

"It's really the future of policing and a paradigm shift from that 'boots-on-the-street' style of policing, which we'll always have, to a more analytical, data-driven approach," he says.

Wilkinson says that the citywide surveillance system will eventually "touch every part of the 131 square miles" of Atlanta. That means up to 10,000 cameras over the next five years, all integrated into the VIC's massive network.

Wilkinson also wants to see several key technological improvements, such as a device that could extract data from a 911 call or sensors that can pinpoint where gunshots were fired, to help make the center even more efficient. Such upgrades would enable "triggered" cameras to show up automatically on a VIC officer's video screen, calling attention to an ongoing crime or suspicious activity.

The VIC touts one of the nation's fastest-growing surveillance networks. As new cameras continue to be linked with the center, its scope is approaching the size of systems found in much larger cities, such as Chicago and New York. Currently, Atlanta's system is most comparable to the Baltimore Police Department's CitiWatch network.

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