We're Watching You

Want some privacy? Don't leave your house.

You may never march for a cause, picket your employer or talk back to authorities. You may not even have an opinion of your own. You might prefer the company of TiVo, live in Highland Park and vote Republican. You are still being monitored.

It isn't just the police who are interested in knowing where you are, what you're doing and who you're doing it with. Your employers, your local grocer, your favorite shop in the mall and your insurance company want to know, too.

There are a million unblinking eyes. They're watching you at the golf course, they're zooming in on what you eat and what you buy, tracking whether you prefer red or green grapes. They can see you drive, park your car, use your ATM card. A few can even hear you.

Mark Andresen

Security fears that exploded after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center fueled the start-up of one Dallas-based company specializing in digital video surveillance systems: DV Dallas.

"After 9-11 we saw the market," says Chief Executive Officer Darjon Bittner. "Everyone was putting cameras in. They were scared to death."

I called in at the appointed hour for a three-way call with company chiefs who were nowhere to be found. When neither picked up their desk phones, an operations manager searched their offices and conference room via surveillance cameras.

DV Dallas' stroke of genius was to replace analog (think: wave) with digital (the numeric representation of the wave) video recording. The result: crisper images, clearer sound quality, smaller storage requirements, streamlined efficiency and a product affordable to the mainstream.

Instead of switching out tapes and labeling them on a daily basis, months' worth of information can be stored on a single compact disc. Because the new system is computer-driven, the amount of equipment required to do surveillance has been reduced up to 30 percent. Another benefit is that digital recordings remain sharp whereas VHS tapes degrade over time.

The company has contracted with Dallas County Schools to test video and audio surveillance on one of its buses. Highland Park ISD has installed the company's cameras in each of its elementary, middle and high school campuses. And DV Dallas has outfitted the American Airlines Center with cameras capable of night vision and face identification.

Today's systems are equipped with motion-sensitive cameras that shut off when the field of view is still. Cameras are smaller and more efficient, Bittner says. Many are the size of a thumb while others are virtually covert, about the size of a pinhole. DV Dallas digitally watermarks its videos, making them admissible evidence in court.

The cost of a digital surveillance system is no more expensive than its VHS counterpart, and prices continue to drop as the technology becomes more available.

At $1,000 a camera, up to 32 cameras can be wired, connected to the Internet and controlled from a remote location, saving companies an estimated $60,000 to $100,000 a year in rent-a-cop salaries. That's why Zales, Highland Park ISD and about 200 other local companies have signed on with DV Dallas.

According to a report produced by Thompson Financial, a New York-based investment bank, electronic surveillance is a $30 billion-a-year industry that is expected to continue to grow at a rate of 8 percent a year. About $3.5 billion is spent on installing and maintaining these systems. The report credits terrorism and the national focus on security for the surge of interest in commercial surveillance systems.

We have come to expect cameras in banks, airports, convention centers--public spaces that are targets of violence whether for fame or fortune.

But now a new market is emerging. Smaller companies are using surveillance systems to improve security and the bottom line. Regardless of the use, the result is the same: a slow erosion of our sense of private space.

For Ben Bridge jewelry store manager Joe Griggs, it took some time to get used to Westec security company's "interactive" video and audio surveillance system.

One morning Griggs got a call from the chief of security complimenting Griggs on the suit he was wearing. Though he admits the ongoing surveillance feels strange, he says the store needed to overhaul its security. In the past year, the NorthPark Center jewelry store had three $20,000 Rolex watches ripped off in grab-and-runs. In a separate incident, three young men entered the shop right after the mall opened and took sledgehammers to the display cases.

The store closed a side access and rigged the shop with a live surveillance system that employees can message with panic buttons they carry on them. Signs let customers know they are being watched along with hourly "voice downs," reminding everyone that they are being videotaped and their conversations monitored.

Local business owners are using surveillance systems to manage employee behavior, prevent theft, avoid litigation and control merchandise, Bittner says.

"Management can log in and look at store conditions, the cleanliness of a restaurant, look at cases to see if displays are up and see if managers are showing up on time," he says. "They can evaluate employee relations using this as a tool."

The issue of video and audio surveillance of employees and customers raised the hackles of some restaurateurs who were erroneously accused of listening in on customers' conversations.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help