Surveillance cameras and the Times Square bombing.

Science, technology, and life.
May 4 2010 1:39 PM

Luck Tape

Surveillance cameras and the Times Square bombing.

Surveillance image of the Times Square SUV. Click image to expand.
Surveillance image of the Times Square SUV

"Times Square bombing attempt reveals limits of video surveillance," says the headline in today's Washington Post. "Search for Surveillance Images Yields Few Clues," says the teaser in the Wall Street Journal. That video of the guy taking off his shirt? A false lead. Those public and private security cameras the cops have been checking for images of the driver? Useless.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Why didn't the cameras help? Look at this frame from the one with the best view. There's the car, passing through Times Square on its way to the detonation site. What can you see inside it? Nothing. The windows are opaque. The alleged bomber, Faisal Shahzad, got them tinted before his trip to New York. Cameras, it seems, are no match for a clever terrorist.

But the last laugh is on Shahzad. His precautions to avoid identification—paying cash for the car and stealing license plates for it—were foiled by a mistake. According to ABC News, he took the car for "a test drive in the parking lot of a Bridgeport shopping center. FBI agents recovered a shopping center surveillance tape that they say shows Shahzad driving the car."

Those pesky cameras. They're everywhere.

Critics of surveillance are right that cameras can't solve most crimes by themselves. You can't just plunk a bunch of cops in front of monitors, watch all the video from local cameras, and catch the culprit. The more cameras you have, the more video there is to slog through. Authorities in New York threw every resource at this case and still couldn't finish the job. "Police spent much of Sunday combing through images from at least 82 cameras in a multiblock radius to see if they could better track the suspect," the Journal reported yesterday, but "as of early Sunday evening, only 30 cameras had been reviewed, and only three offered any leads." After eight hours of scanning, "police said they had spotted the vehicle only for a few seconds on camera."

The problem isn't getting the video. It's analyzing it. Thousands of people passed in front of cameras around Times Square. If you don't see the bomber at the moment he stepped out of his car, you have no idea what to look for. Nor do the other cops and agents. And this is a huge case with limitless resources. As the Post points out, studies in Britain have found that "police officers resist the tedium of trolling through reams of images to solve routine crimes."

When you don't know what to look for, cameras won't help you. But once you know, they're your best friend. They can take you back in time, miles away, to a place where you wish you'd had an eyewitness. They are your eyewitness.

In this case, that time and place was a week ago in the shopping center in Bridgeport. There's Shahzad. He's got his plan all worked out. He'll use cash to keep his name off the purchase. He'll switch the plates so the cameras in New York can't trace the car. He'll even tint the windows so the cameras can't see him. But he's too late: He's already on camera. The family that sold him the car can't remember his name, but they remember the test drive in the shopping center. Agents go to the shopping center and get the video. This time, they don't have to sift through thousands of passers-by. They know what to look for. He's nailed.

The Bridgeport camera didn't crack the case. The vehicle identification number, an e-mail, and a disposable cell phone seem to have provided the crucial links. But in the desperate hours when agents needed solid evidence to confirm the bomber's identity and find him, the camera came through. It confirmed that Shahzad had bought the car, and it showed agents whom to look for at the airport.

Terrorists, take note: If Big Brother isn't watching you, somebody else's camera probably is. We just have to find it.

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