Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

In New York City, Microsoft Really Is Watching You

August is upon us, and in New York that means we’re on the downhill run to the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which brings with it a renewed focus on the security measures we’ve come to live with, like them or not, since that awful day.

In lower Manhattan, and pretty much anywhere in the city, one of those things is the presence of security cameras and security sensors all over the place, constantly on the lookout for people doing bad things. The city has a network of about 3,000 cameras, most of them in lower and Midtown Manhattan, and that doesn’t take into account the presence of privately operated cameras in practically every office, retail and residential building. Today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked things up a notch and announced that the city has teamed up with Microsoft to create some new software called the Domain Awareness System.

Simply put, it’s a huge analysis tool that brings together a lot of the data that the city has in order to make crimes easier to investigate. It brings to bear the extensive network of cameras and sensors that had been put in place to guard against another terrorist attack, and puts it to use in the fight against more common crimes. As New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly put it, when he arrived on the job in 2005, there was “a lot of data that we didn’t know we had.”

It’s a classic example of mountains of big data being mined for useful results. For one example, the camera network has the intelligence to track the license plate numbers of cars as they move around the city. Once cops know that a particular car is associated with a murder suspect, they can check back through the records for times the car has been seen in other places around the city, in order to see where that car, and quite possibly the suspect, have been.

If that seems a little spooky to you, then you might be surprised to learn just how common reading license plates is: My last assignment for BusinessWeek in 2010 was to ride along with a technician from ELSAG North America who was demonstrating a car-mounted camera system that could scan up to 3,600 plates a minute and determine almost instantly if the car was listed as stolen. The same system provided a crucial piece of evidence in an infamous murder case in upstate New York when a police officer caught an image of a car leaving a neighborhood where a house was on fire. It happened that the car was owned by a suspect who, it turned out, had started the fire that killed several people. The image eviscerated his alibi and he ended up getting convicted.

Anyway, license plates are just one piece of the system’s capabilities, and its worth seeing the demonstrations of what it can do in this video of the press conference from earlier today. It also tracks data on other crimes. If an officer wants to know how many shootings occurred in the Bronx on a particular day or in a specific area during certain hours of the night, the system can do that pretty easily, relying primarily on information generated from 911 calls, police incident reports and other sources.

Here’s another interesting thing it will do: Make the city money. Bloomberg said that while Microsoft provided “the technical muscle” in building it, the city’s police force provided the institutional and professional knowledge and experience in describing what it was they wanted the system to do. Now Microsoft will offer the system to other police agencies around the world, and the city will pocket 30 percent of the net profits on every sale.

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First the NSA came for, well, jeez pretty much everybody’s data at this point, and I said nothing because wait how does this joke work

— Parker Higgins via Twitter