how surveillance technology is changing cities

How Surveillance Technology is Changing Cities (For the Better)

Since the 1960s and the advent of CCTV, surveillance in many cities is the norm—and the number of cameras on the streets today continues to grow.1

Also growing is the technology used to recognize what’s happening on the cameras, and the innovative applications possible with that information. While the prospect may have ominous overtones for some — think facial recognition technology2 tracking a person’s movements — there are immensely beneficial applications, too.  

Vehicle-related deaths in the U.S. in 2017, for example, were notably higher3 than just two years prior. But with smart surveillance technology, a city’s transportation grid might have traffic lights outfitted with cameras that can identify pedestrians and cyclists, communicate that information to cars, and help make the road safer for anyone who sets foot on it.

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The capabilities of surveillance technologies are evolving at a rapid pace, with huge potential for the future. Cities around the world have invested in sensors, cameras, network upgrades, and other solutions already available today. And in the near future, more advanced technology is expected to make in-the-moment reactions to city challenges like crime, safety and energy consumption a reality. 

How Surveillance Made This Northwest City Smart

The “smart city” is a popular urban planning phrase, but the idea isn’t new. Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, has used CCTV to operate its traffic management center near city hall since the 1970s. From there, engineers could monitor camera feeds to tweak signals and ease traffic—for example, keeping lights green longer during the holiday season along busy shopping corridors. And as technology improved, so did the way the city (population 130,000) thought about how to implement it.

“We’ve taken that whole system and put it onto a fiber-optic network, and upgraded it through four or five generations,” explains Chris Long, Bellevue’s traffic engineering manager.

Today, the project is an integral tool for Bellevue’s city leaders. Close to 100 cameras covering more than half of the city’s traffic signals, which don’t just feed information to engineers in the traffic management center — they also enforce the law.  

Motorists can be cited for speeding in a school zone or running a red light without being stopped by a police car. Investigators also use camera footage to combat more serious crimes: In January, police identified a serial bank robbery suspect and in March, they arrested an arson suspect, both based on footage collected by the traffic cameras.  

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The systems are accessible by the general public, too: Residents curious about the road conditions in Bellevue can check out the status of any given intersection from a browser window, where a still image, updated about once a minute, offers a snapshot of what’s happening to anybody with an internet connection.   

Today’s City Surveillance Runs on 4G, Wi-Fi and DSRC

While Bellevue’s system isn’t built around deep machine learning—at least, not yet—it’s an example of how a city has successfully invested in, implemented and expanded its surveillance capabilities. And while some of these more advanced technologies like deep learning are seeing early use today, most cities are leveraging already-widespread surveillance technology to mitigate traffic, crime and other urban challenges.

surveillance technology 4Lily Elefteriadou is a university professor in Gainesville, Florida, who studies transportation and smart cities. She says, depending on the type of information cities are looking to communicate and who they’re trying to share it with, they need 4G communications, wireless internet, and dedicated short range communication (DSRC), the technology used in many of today’s toll pass systems. 

“Each technology has different capabilities, which makes them more suitable for different applications,” Elefteriadou says. “DSRC latency is short, so it’s better suited for safety applications where you want a very quick response between the infrastructure and the vehicle, or between vehicles. With the [4G and wireless internet], there’s more latency, but they’re also more widely available.”

She says that the city of Gainesville partnered with a company that communicates traffic data to drivers using Wi-Fi. Drivers download an app that uses location data and speed data via the phone’s accelerometer, and based on that information the app sends a notification to tell drivers if the light they’re approaching will stay green, or if they are likely to encounter a red light and should consider slowing down. The city found the technology promotes safer driving; for example, people tend not to accelerate into lights they’re not going to make.

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The next phase in seeing these improvements on a widespread basis centers on interoperability between cities, says Elefteriadou. 

“You need to make sure that if a vehicle[‘s software] is working in Gainesville, it will also work in New York City or Atlanta,” she says.

Cars installed with expensive hardware to allow them to communicate with infrastructure in one city should also communicate with the traffic signals or parking sensors in other places—otherwise, it’ll be hard to convince consumers of the utility of technological upgrades that will only do anything in the driver’s hometown. Elefteriadou has worked with officials in Florida, Ohio and Texas to avoid the pitfalls that could come with 50 states—or potentially even each city—using competing protocols. 

High Tech is on the Horizon

Using mobile apps to provide analytics and statistics to drivers may be a more intermediate form of technology than high-tech alternatives—think of it as, perhaps, the fax machine to the internet of smart cities that’s coming. 

Enabling dynamic communication among city infrastructure, vehicles and pedestrians requires emerging technologies like edge computing and machine learning. And while these technologies pose more of an investment for cities, city officials seem ready to spend to make their systems smarter.

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In fact, by 2025, the smart city technology market is expected to be a $2 trillion dollar industry,4 as cities all over the globe look to reduce traffic fatalities and improve the lives of commuters by installing traffic light cameras, parking sensors, and the computing hardware to make sense of the data they capture—as well as the software and staff required to keep up with the advances in technology.

Chris Long, Bellevue’s traffic engineering manager, says the city is experimenting with a system that allows city officials to analyze data from near-miss collisions, rather than fatal ones, which could change the way the roads work dramatically—instead of looking at why an accident occurred, smart city technology allows people to see why one didn’t, which is the sort of advance that people in this line of work have been dreaming about for a long time. 

“It’s been kind of the holy grail for the industry, and the technology, video analytics, and deep machine learning are really changing the game,” Long says.  

Getting to a point where all of this is both standardized and widely implemented will take time, and there are other challenges that will come up in response to advances in technology—4K video, for example, offers exciting opportunities, but also significant data requirements—but it seems clear that cities are willing to invest in it.  

The conversations happening among engineers, developers, researchers, and experts around the world all increase our likelihood of living in a world where the roads are a lot safer.  

Learn more about 5 features to look for in drives optimized for smart security here.

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This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.  



  1. They Are Watching You—And Everything Else on the Planet  
  2. Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras 
  3. U.S. vehicle deaths topped 40,000 in 2017, according to estimates  
  4. Experts Announce Global Smart Cities to Raise a Market of Over $2 Trillion by 2025  


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