“Zoom in. Enhance!” is a lie.
The computer geeks from the Counter Terrorist Unit on “24,” Tom Cruise’s gadget crew in the “Mission: Impossible” movies and every person who ever sat at a computer on “CSI” and its many variations taught us to believe. If someone is caught on camera doing something naughty, they’ll be identified. It’s only a matter of time.
“Zoom in” on that fuzzy footage. “Enhance!” those pixels.
Boom. There’s your guy. And he’s standing right behind you!
The reality is that in most cases, surveillance video shot in convenience stores and banks, at ATMs, at mom-and-pop businesses and even at Las Vegas casinos is not great quality. In fact, in 2013, the year when more than half of us are carrying around smartphones, many with the ability to shoot high-definition video at an instant, you’d be surprised by how much of security footage is caught on analog cameras, captured at sub-DVD quality resolutions and (brace yourself) stored on videotape.
It’s why often, when you see a still image or video footage released by the Austin Police Department from a crime, it might be black and white and very low quality. That’s not the department’s fault; they can only do so much with the footage they receive.
Scott Goldfine, editor-in-chief of Security Sales & Integration, a trade magazine covering the surveillance industry, says that there’s a huge transition going on from analog to digital, but many businesses are still clinging to obsolete technology.
“The technology is certainly there and available. But some of the systems out there are 15 years old or even older than that,” Goldfine said. “There’s a tremendous amount of legacy technology out there in retail and banking.”
That can mean analog video cameras that top out at resolutions below standard DVDs and storage on deteriorating videotapes that aren’t being rotated. It can become an issue when a business is trying to help solve a theft, protect itself against slip-and-fall litigation or investigating bad behavior in the workplace.
Goldfine said that the scale is finally tipping toward digital after a long period of foot-dragging. “At least half if not more of new cameras being sold are the better-quality, networkable digital cameras,” he said. “It’s a cost issue. (Businesses) are sometimes dragged kicking and screaming to better technology.”
While digital equipment keeps getting less expensive, the cost of upgrading or purchasing a new surveillance system isn’t insubstantial. A system usually consists of multiple cameras and a recorder (something like the DVR you might use to capture TV shows) with a storage system such as a hard drive or, on older systems, video cassettes.
Analog cameras can be used with digital recorders, but newer equipment can offer HD-quality optics, high-resolution video capture and even Internet-based storage and backups with virtually unlimited space. (Though, Goldfine said, there is skepticism from some about storing sensitive security data on the Web.)
Richard Steeley, director of operations at Hutto-based Point Security, has been working in the security industry since 1986. He says that even today, many businesses are relying on “CIF” (Common Intermediate Format) resolution, which is 352 pixels by 240 pixels.
“That’s standard, old-school broadcast television, which doesn’t even exist anymore,” Steeley said.
The newer industry standard format, Steeley said, is D1, or 704 pixels by 480 pixels resolution at 30 frames per second per camera, which is comparable to DVD quality but still a far cry from high-def.
With good equipment, even using analog cameras, you can get a good video image for about $2,000. Going high-def with digital equipment that’s IP-based (networked and accessible online) and which can digitally watermark footage (a way of authenticating video to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with) can cost two or three times that much, Steeley said.
“There is a pretty significant jump in price,” he said. “Security systems don’t generate income; they generate cost. And in the interest of cost, it gets cut back. That’s why you see a lot of analog. It’s very efficient, cost-wise.”
It’s also why some businesses choose to purchase their own systems and install them instead of hiring a security firm. Steeley says he often sees footage in which low-quality cameras are positioned badly and used in poor lighting conditions. One rookie move? Aiming a camera at a front door.
“That’s the worst thing you can do,” Steeley said. “When anybody comes through the door, you see a white blob of a background; it’s much brighter than the white balance is adjusted for, and you see a dark silhouette. You get very little detail at all.”
By and large, Steeley said, “It’s not like what they show on ‘CSI’; the zoom in, enhance, that’s at the very high end of the IP stuff that costs thousands and thousands of dollars. In the average home or business, that capability doesn’t exist.”
Moving to high-def video, which in some optimal cases can allow a reasonable amount of zooming and enhancing, also means using up more storage, though hard drive prices continue to drop. Goldfine said it’s common for businesses to store 30 to 90 days of security footage, though some businesses, like banks, are required to keep data longer.
The Austin Police Department has gone through its own transition from analog to digital footage as it installed Panasonic in-car camera systems, which have been in use for about two and a half years. Prior to that, police stops were recorded on VHS.
Senior police officer Tom Howard of Austin’s Police Technology Unit said the footage captured is standard definition, or DVD-quality.
High-definition systems like it exist, “but when we purchased, this is what was available,” Howard said. “Things are progressing quickly. You can almost never stay on top of the curve, especially when you’re in a large city.”
Despite being standard-def, the Austin police system does some neat tricks. It buffers video continually and automatically starts recording when an officer opens the driver door, when police lights or sirens are activated, any time the vehicle goes over 90 mph, when an officer uses a transmitter or microphone, in the event of an accident or when an officer activates recording manually.
The video format used can be viewed and copied as evidence but can’t be edited or deleted and is not accessible to everyone in the department. Howard, who recently attended an FBI session on digital image recovery, said that with in-car systems, the position of the camera and the audio captured of an incident can be more important than the quality of the video. One camera points inside the vehicle and another out the window. Until there are officer-mounted camera systems, Howard said, there will always be issues with what the camera sees, but he’s optimistic about the technology.
“I’m really excited for the future and what it holds for officers,” Howard said. “Things will get cheaper and better as with anything. The better evidence we can capture, the better you can see what actually happened.”
Find technology news, reviews and more at Omar L. Gallaga’s blog, Digital Savant, at austin360.com/digitalsavant.