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.

Contrary to an article published in the March issue of D magazine, neither Sonny Bryan's nor Tom Tom Noodle House has hidden microphones at their tables--nor do all owners desire that information, even though it's available.

Yes, they have cameras, but they're not listening.

"We'd never do anything like that--it's a complete invasion of privacy," says Russell Hayward, owner of Tom Tom Noodle House. Hayward installed a surveillance system in 2000. The cameras are trained on the back door, the safe and on cash registers, but not on customers. "If you have to eavesdrop on staff, then you need to look at your hiring process more closely."

DV Dallas is working with an undisclosed Dallas-based restaurant chain that is interested in what happens in both the front and back of the house. The managers will know who is pilfering food or booze, who orders a salad and the manner in which it's delivered.

"I imagine managers would be interested in traffic by time of day, capturing images of satisfied customers leaving or hungry customers arriving, making sure they're greeted with a smile and monitoring the average wait time," says DV's chief operating officer, Tom Jones.

The restaurants will not be equipped for audio surveillance, Jones says.

Has the proliferation of surveillance systems raised concerns about privacy?

Griggs says some employees are uncomfortable with being watched, but he doesn't know anyone who has formally complained. "We don't have it in the bathroom or backroom where we eat lunch or where we adjust clothing. We don't do that," he says.

From the moment you leave your house to the moment you shut the door behind you, you have almost no privacy, says Jackson Walker attorney Jim McCown, who represents the Dallas Observer.

Basically, court rulings on privacy are based on zones or expectations of privacy, he says. For example, most people expect that their homes are private spaces. Same goes for bathrooms and dressing rooms. But there are no hard-and-fast rules. Shoplifters are regularly prosecuted for concealing merchandise they carry into these "private" places. In Texas, it's legal for either party to a phone conversation to record it without notifying the other person. E-mail isn't private. And neither is buying a stereo or swiping your debit card at the grocery store.

In addition to managing employee behavior and controlling merchandise, surveillance systems are now being used to generate a profile of you.

Bittner claims that Wal-Mart stores have in place a surveillance system that captures customer response to merchandise displays and signs. At the checkout, items swiped across the bar code scanner are photographed along with the customer. Additionally, the debit card transaction is connected to the customer. A picture of the product and consumer are tied together for marketing purposes. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber says she was unaware of such a system, but Bittner says he was one of a handful of companies to bid on the project last year.

"I would dare say that every building in America in the next year or two will have some form of digital cameras," Bittner says. "We're at war."

And that means good business.

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