Cities need smarter video surveillance

About one third of the population living in OECD countries feels unsafe walking alone at night. Public safety is a growing area of concern in many cities around the world.

Of course, the level of concern varies between regions and countries, sometimes even between cities within the same country. Japan, Singapore, Australia, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Canada normally rank high in city safety indexes, while Latin America, Africa and the Middle East have a relatively high number of less safe cities.

A wide range of security technologies is available for cities to support law enforcement and some of them – such as analogue video surveillance systems – have been around for decades. According to Berg Insight, the global market for city surveillance equipment reached € 9.9 billion in 2020 and should grow with a CAGR of 19.7 percent to reach 24.2 billion in 2025, including both hardware and software systems.

China, the US and the UK have led the adoption of fixed video surveillance systems, with China alone having more than 200 million cameras installed. The newest generations of these devices can be integrated in urban IoT infrastructures to be managed and controlled along with other smart, connected devices. Advancements in video analytics and the injection of Artificial Intelligence have furthermore enhanced surveillance operations.

A promising technological evolution is about mobile and audio surveillance. Body-worn and in-vehicle cameras for law enforcement agencies are emerging as valuable complements to existing video surveillance infrastructure. Wearable devices allow law enforcement personnel to capture video and audio materials to improve live operations, at the same time documenting possible police misconduct for public accountability purposes. The use of body-worn cameras is growing significantly, with the US and the UK again leading the adoption together with China, Australia, France, and Germany.

New IoT applications include gunshot detection sensors. This is not a brand new technology (military applications are mature), but their use for wide-area surveillance in urban environments is fairly recent. Gunshot detection systems are now being piloted in a number of cities – primarily in North America – and industry analysts expect them to become attractive in regions where crime rates remain worrisome.

While cities need smarter ways to ensure public safety, video surveillance is not exempt from criticism. Applications that require facial recognition, even when used for surveillance purposes only, are often viewed as a violation of personal privacy and sometimes opposed by citizens.

In Barcelona, Spain, the city council developed a camera-based solution to action crowd control measures and help tackle Covid-19, but it was forced to anonymize images to protect the privacy of people in public spaces. Back in 2019, several US cities including San Francisco and Oakland banned facial recognition technology and a strong civil rights activist movement is currently pushing for a strict regulation of digital surveillance in several states.

While the privacy dilemma will need to be solved, it is clear that video surveillance technologies offer great benefits to cities and people. In the near future, we will most probably see a more effective use of these systems and a smoother integration with other urban applications for traffic monitoring, fire detection, emergency response, and more.

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