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All-seeing eye: the history of video surveillance

There are eyes everywhere, and they don’t belong to humans. In today’s fast-paced modern world, video surveillance has become as essential to society as security guards and gateways. Mention video surveillance and the average Joe will instantly associate the term with video cameras mounted in banks and department stores or videotapes of an erroneous spouse marked Exhibit A in a complicated divorce proceeding.

The history of video surveillance is as complex as the system behind it. In fact, it goes back much further in time than most of us realize. Press reports indicate that as early as 1965, police in the United States have been using video surveillance in public places. By 1969, police cameras had been installed in strategic areas of the New York City municipal building. This set a strong precedent, and it was not long before the practice spread to other cities and key areas were closely watched by police officers, using closed circuit television (CCTV) systems.

Analog Beginnings
Video cassette tapes are largely responsible for popularizing video surveillance. The analog technology used in video cassette recording gave decision makers an innovative idea: it is possible to preserve evidence on tape.

In 1975, England installed video surveillance systems in four of its main tube stations. At the same time, they also began to monitor the flow of traffic on major highways. The United States did the same during the 1980s, and although it had not been as quick as England to use video surveillance, it made up for lost time by widely instituting video surveillance systems in public areas.

Digital multiplexing and later developments
One drawback of analog technology was that users had to change tapes daily. This was fixed in the 1990s, with the introduction of digital multiplexing. Digital multiplexer units had features such as motion-only and time-lapse recording, which saved a large amount of tape space. In addition, it allowed simultaneous recordings on several cameras.

The next advance, digitization, introduced compression capability and low cost, allowing users to record a month’s worth of surveillance video on the hard drive. Additionally, digitally recorded images are clearer and allow for image manipulation to improve clarity.

9/11 and the Internet
The events of September 11, 2001 changed the public perception of video surveillance. Software developers created programs that improve video surveillance. Facial recognition programs is one of these programs. Using key points of facial features, the recorded faces are compared to photographs of terrorists and criminals.

In May 2002, facial recognition software was installed on computer video surveillance cameras at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. In the same year SmartGate was installed at Sydney International Airport in Australia. SmartGate is an automated border crossing system for airline crew members. The system scans the faces of crew members, compares them to passport photos, and confirms identity in less than ten seconds.

In December 2003, the Royal Palm Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona installed facial recognition video surveillance. This is a pilot program to register sex offenders and track missing children.

To all these developments, the Internet is the icing on the cake. It revolutionized video surveillance by removing all impediments to viewing and monitoring anywhere in the world.

Clearly, humanity has created better and more refined means of video surveillance. The smallest, most elegant and powerful video surveillance systems are released almost every month. Satellites bounce signals around the world. In fact, there are eyes everywhere, and several of them are in the sky.

There is always someone watching.

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