Cameras in the New York City Subways

An update:

New York City’s plan to secure its subways with a next-generation surveillance network is getting more expensive by the second, and slipping further and further behind schedule. A new report by the New York State Comptroller’s office reveals that “the cost of the electronic security program has grown from $265 million to $450 million, an increase of $185 million or 70 percent.” An August 2008 deadline has been pushed back to December 2009, and further delays may be just ahead.


I’ve spent the last few months, on and off, reporting on New York’s counter-terror programs for the magazine. One major problem with the subway surveillance program has been wedging a modern security network into a 5,000 square-mile system that recently celebrated its hundredth birthday. Getting the power ­ and air-conditioning ­ needed for the cameras’ servers has been a nightmare. In many stations, there’s literally no place to put the things. Plus, the ceilings in most of the subway stations are only nine feet high, and there are columns every few yards. Which makes it very hard to get a good look at the passengers.

Posted on January 25, 2008 at 1:41 PM31 Comments


Dave X January 25, 2008 2:41 PM

The Bush-Begun Endless War On Terror is Lucrative and a Growth Industry. That is so, if you make your money selling to the Government.

Government funds are your money January 25, 2008 3:14 PM

$450 million in taxpayer dollars. Government bureaucrat’s response when asked why so expensive: “What do I care? It’s not my money.”

shoobe01 January 25, 2008 3:31 PM

And the cameras require servers because…?

Because they are “next generation.”

And stop asking questions before you get us all in trouble.

Sofa January 25, 2008 3:39 PM

Distributed surveillance systems require massive amounts of infrastructure because the camera is sending back images to an encoder that digitizes them and passes them to NVR’s that record and store the footage for retrieval by an administrator via a System Manager. Its more complex than a point and click camera. You can’t just have live cameras, you need a way to digitize it for long term storage on a hard drive. Once its stored you need someway to intelligently sort and recall specific footage with authentication and accuracy.

averros January 25, 2008 3:42 PM

And the cameras require servers because…?

Because there’s some loot left in public coffers the politicos’ pals in the security “business” would really like to lay their hands on.

This is not about security, neither it is about technology. It’s all about using the “public” government for the private benefit.

tjvm January 25, 2008 3:44 PM

“And the cameras require servers because…?”

I assume the servers will store all the video footage generated by the cameras. This highlights one of the major problems with massive video surveillance: there’s no one to watch all those cameras. So for the most part, you just have images being generated by a camera and then automatically archived somewhere, in case they’re needed someday.

As far as I can see, this sort of surveillance is only useful after an attack has occurred; you can, hopefully, review the video data to identify the people involved and perhaps track their movements within the subway system. That’s undoubtedly useful, but it seems awfully expensive for something that does not (as far as I can tell) do much to help us prevent attacks.

Troym January 25, 2008 4:27 PM

I don’t know what everyone is complaining about. $450 million for a fancy auditing system makes everyone safer. Those pick pockets have met their match now.

I bet it stops terrorism too. We all know the terrorists don’t want to have their faces all over television after they have committed their crime.

NotME January 25, 2008 4:29 PM

@ctp “And the cameras require servers because…?
@tjvm “…there’s no one to watch all those cameras…[AFAICS] this sort of surveillance is only useful after an attack has occurred…”

Actually, there are some folks to watch the cameras. I used to be one of those drones in a similar org. The job is long and boring, so some stuff can get by those tired eyes.
When the routine monotony is broken, one does see trips & falls, small fires, pickpockets, muggings, and the occasional ‘train surfing’ or other suicidal act.

The tape / digital record of the event helps out later when these folks get to criminal court or if they get hurt and sue. It is a lot harder to discredit video evidence (as opposed to human recollection) if it is handled properly.

Now, is it expensive?- sure.
However, if there are 50 or 60 lawsuits a day filed, and the tape can avoid settlements on half of those – the ‘real’ expenses come down a lot.
Taxpayers still have to foot the legal bills when the EmptyYay loses in court.

Are the cameras adequately monitored? – management & beancounters want to cut staff, labor and unions want to add staff. This is – and probably will always be a fluid balancing act. It is probably close to optimal now. More watchers also mean more sick days, health insurance payments, drug tests and overtime pay.

Will this stop disasters?
Cameras couldn’t have helped the WTC attack of 2001, but may have helped – if anyone was really scrutinizing – back in 93.

These are more for the perception of security – both through quality-of-life issue enforcement, and the perception that the police are watching most of the time – even when there is nobody around.

Peter E Retep January 25, 2008 5:14 PM

Just a memory – – remember the economy of Soviet Roumania was pauperized by having global total surveillance and monitoring 24 x 7 of every business/meeting venue and all traffic?

Of course, once the state was suspended, the factories that made table vases with bugs inside, lamp fixtures and lamposts with cameras, microbugs to install in chairs, etc., were sold and shipped to France, which uses them to support French companiers in business negotiations.
[Fly Air France and be recorded for posterity.]

Wonder what NYC/Port Authority plan to do with their (every 18 months) obsoleted equipment?

unary January 25, 2008 7:18 PM

just whom does your government think are the real problem…. ideological extremists or the US citizen?
…or is this just the “war on terror’s” version of “nobody ever was fired for buying IBM”???

unary January 25, 2008 7:45 PM

actually i should clarify my position on this sort of thing….
i live in melbourne, australia. since the eighties, our cbd has had increasing and saturated cctv overlooking all public streets, stations and major intersections. most of our freeways are lined end to end with the same.
our public transport system is extensive and melbourne’s suburban sprawl is, by capita, the largest in the world. all of our trains, trams, stations, taxis and buses have very, very good cctv. all of this has been in constant flux and continual improvement and i don’t doubt what security this provides melbournians on a personal level from violent crime and safe streets.
all of this surveillance can be accessed by the authorities (although it is owned and operated by a mix of transport authorities and business) in the event of any incident that they require, and on a few occasion has helped to foil many a criminal gang….but this is how it has been sold and evolved. this is still how they sell an all encompassing city-wide cctv blanket. at no time has anybody claimed it prevents an act occurring, criminal or terrorist, but in the aftermath (we do have the odd “falling down” reenactment and some bad ass mafioso turf war every few years) it has helped the police solve many a high profile crime, as well as manage the odd 1/4 million people sized protests without too much police aggression. the use of the system is heavily regulated and there is a large amount of oversight in all aspects of the system – from design to procurement through implementation and access.

i guess what i’m trying to say is that although i am comfortable with essentially the same level of surveillance that seems to be talked about, it is the rhetoric used, the justifications that bother me most about these reports from the USA.

have a nice day. 🙂

Peter January 26, 2008 12:18 AM

And just the like war agains “global warming” these measures have no effect at all. Except for wasting money better spent elsewhere.

Albatross January 26, 2008 10:40 AM

Want a larf? Now, I’m not familiar with the NYC subway system, but is it possible by any chance to BUY things there? Are there vendors and shops in the hallways?

There are? Do any of them take credit cards?

They do? Cool!

Guess what, NYC – if your cameras are high resolution enough to make out the digits on a credit card, your new camera system needs to be PCI compliant!

What? A customer hands over a credit card. The merchant turns it over to inspect the back. The whole transaction is caught on high-resolution digital camera, and stored in one of those “servers.” You now have the credit card number, expiration, and CVV2 number, all stored in digital form. Encrypt data in transit! Encrypt data at rest!

Angel one January 26, 2008 7:08 PM

Cameras aren’t the worst idea in the world. Although they’re unlikely to catch terrorists, they are likely to help solve the myriad of other crimes that occur on the subway – muggings, assault, theft, etc.

Albatross January 27, 2008 9:29 AM

Nobody tries to “solve” those crimes, Angelone. If the mugger isn’t caught in the act, and if nobody is killed, there is no investigation.

Meanwhile, sacrificing freedom for security, etc. etc.

(BTW “nightunivers” comment makes no sense)

TimH January 27, 2008 9:39 AM

Recording for forensics isn’t much help. I very much doubt you’d get the videos reveiwed to solve a mugging, let along a pocket pick when the location is vague.

This Big Lie here is that recording protects people. It really can’t, except in rare occasions, unless the feeds are monitored real time.

Similar language is used for insurance – like saying earthquake insurance protects your house from earthquakes. Of course the insurance protects nothing, just replces the damage.

You could argue that video surveillance makes pedestrians less safe, because they presume they are being monitored and protected, and relax from the normal awareness of their surroundings that would let them avoid a mugging setup, for example.

Guillaume Theoret January 27, 2008 4:05 PM

I hadn’t been in Montreal’s subway system for a couple months until this weekend and I noticed a brand new (it’s obvious what’s new in a subway station since everything else is so old) object poking down from the ceiling. I went to check it out and it was a black globe with a little camera inside.

Apparently Montreal managed to get cameras in anyway. (But then again it’s only a fraction the size of NYC’s subway system.)

BrooklynSubWayRider January 27, 2008 7:18 PM

$450 million??!! Are they out of their frakin’ minds? BTW, does anyone remember that the initial costs of most systems are only 20% of the total cost over the life of the system?

I hope it’s better maintained then the station PA systems and the in-train overhead announcement speakers. You usually have only a 50/50 shot at hearing anything intelligible.

My tax $ at work, yuck! 🙁

GordonS January 28, 2008 6:40 AM

@NotME “Now, is it expensive?- sure.
However, if there are 50 or 60 lawsuits a day filed, and the tape can avoid settlements on half of those…”

50 or 60 lawsuits a day!

You gotta love America 😉

bob January 28, 2008 7:58 AM

I wondered where the contractors who were behind the “Big Dig” had gone…

@Albatross: that looks like the result of someone entering a foreign language into an electronic translator online (like babelfish or systran) and then posting the results.

@all you people who blame Bush for big wasteful government: You think the war on Terror(tm) is expensive you should investigate the War on Poverty(tm) (since 1964) or my alltime favorite the War on Drugs(tm) (ca. 1870)

bob January 28, 2008 8:04 AM

I am always fascinated by the people who make excuses for the NYC subway maintenance issues saying “because its so old”.

The London Subway is older. And larger. And has to deal with 1500 MORE years worth of “documentation lost” underground infrastructure.

The Berlin subway is also older. And had the @#$! bombed out of it.

Both these systems are cleaner, brighter, more efficient and (whether or not you agree with the BENEFITS of the system) completely camera-covered.

DigitalCommando January 28, 2008 10:42 AM

Can you guys please stop criticizing a small part of the DHS nationwide surviellance network, after all, it will be used as a dissent suppression tool when they finally do toss away the constitution, permanently. How effective can a well armed militia be when all of it’s moves and locations are known realtime? Ahh, now we have the REAL reason for it’s creation. I wonder how many train cops could be patrolling the subway for 450 million? Maybe, solving crimes is the ‘front’ for its implementation. Maybe, detecting terrorists is the reason. (I guess the terrorists will be wearing flashing strobe lights on their heads so that the cameras can find them too.)

usuallypostswithaname January 28, 2008 11:55 AM

Gah. They’ve been working on this for 10 years plus, no end in sight. Back in the 20th century the plan was to compress the living daylights out of the video before it ever headed toward a central location (dozens of cameras per station for good coverage, most of them watching blank wall most of the time), but that probably got turned down.

TimH January 28, 2008 2:12 PM

I visited a video security company in Scotland some 12 years ago, and they told me they could not use any compression on the feed (not even lossless, like ZIP) because if modified in any way the stream could not be used as evidence. Let’s see… 10 frames/sec of 640×480 24 bit color is 10x640x480x3 = 9.2Mbytes/sec per camera.

Brian January 28, 2008 2:12 PM

In addition to storing the digitized stream, some systems can actually do pattern recognition and generate alert events for humans to review.

The work is so mind-numbingly boring Humans just don’t do a good job of deciding what needs attention. Use TSA as an example, the work shares some similarities. Instead the servers detect events like two people coming suddenly together and stopping, an object being left unattended, a trip/fall, fires, etc. The failure rate is significant, but the benefit in alertness compared to humans, and cost compared to salaries is pretty significant.

eoj January 28, 2008 8:35 PM

Some sports personality was arrested over the weekend here in Oz. the news this morning had footage of the arrested man being led away by police, taken by the security cameras in his appartment block. How did the media get this footage? I certainly wouldn’t want to live somewhere that records me and then sells the footage,.

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