All for One

Transition to digital surveillance creates headaches for law enforcement

As analog technology continues to recede into the background, so goes the VCR and the simplicity of push-and-play video. In its place is the mighty DVR. Though this has been a welcomed change for entertainment enthusiasts, it has proved to be problematic for law enforcement, namely forensic video analysts, whose job is to secure video surveillance evidence.

The days of arriving on a crime scene and leaving with a VHS tape of the surveillance video are disappearing. Instead, businesses are upgrading to DVRs and the video stored on these devices is only playable on their own systems with their own proprietary players and codecs.

A Costly Obstacle
When surveillance footage of a crime is burned onto a disc and given to the investigating detective, very frequently, he or she cannot play the disc on his or her own computer using industry-standard players like Windows Media Player or QuickTime.

“There was a case in August in which three people were gunned down and we went to five locations to retrieve video,” said an NYPD TARU officer, who asked to remain anonymous. “There was a problem playing video despite the fact I was able to pull the file and burn it onto a disc—I did not have the proprietary player, codec or file extension.”

When this happens, the disc goes back to the video analyst, who then must find, download or buy the matching player in order to view the video. “In a recent burglary, we pulled video and burned it,” the officer said. “I gave the disc to the detective, who couldn’t play the CD due to a missing file extension. I went online, found the player and had to purchase it for $79.99—this is not cost effective.”

“This can really impede a time-critical investigation, such as the abduction of a child or a homicide,” said Mike Fergus, project manager of the Video Evidence Project for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “Those minutes, hours or even days to figure out how to view that video is very costly to an investigation. Sometimes, it can take as long as two weeks to recover video when we have to seize the entire system from a business.”

Many manufacturers insist on using proprietary formats because they claim it offers enhanced encryption and compression and ensures the files remain conversion- proof or tamperproof. However, law enforcement poses the question: What’s the point of super-special encryption if it ends up hindering the speed of investigations? Their suspicion with the use of proprietary formats lies in offering ease of use and compatibility only by compelling end users to purchase all components for a security system from a single manufacturer.

An Interim Solution
In 2005, the Security Industry Association’s Digital Video Subcommittee created the Video Access Portal for Public Safety, an online database of hyperlinks to DVR manufacturer Web sites and whitepapers that includes manufacturer-specific tips on the best methods of retrieving images and video. The site serves as a single source to help law enforcement access DVR viewer software from all manufacturers. Fergus notes the limitation of VAPPS as many manufacturers don’t want to participate and offer their players and codecs for free.

In addition to VAPPS, investigators have collected large catalogs of viewer files that they share via a list server. When a forensic video analyst receives an unplayable video with an obscure file extension, such as “.jr24cc” or “.20dam4,” the analyst can navigate to the Web site and find the corresponding player from another user, the codec itself or links to where the corresponding player is located for download.

The Ideal Answer
Currently, there is no industry standard in the United States. Conversely, the United Kingdom’s security industry standards are considered the most developed in the world. The British Security Industry Association developed standard number BS 8495:2007, which covers all digital CCTV systems that record surveillance video for use as evidence. The standard offers recommendations for the specification, selection, installation and operation of digital CCTV recording systems. It also includes image quality, authenticity, storage and the method for export, and establishes an independent benchmark for end users to reference when choosing a digital CCTV system.

In the United States, standards emerge from consumerism and capitalism. Look back to the VHS versus Betamax war, in which a decade-long battle over format gave out to VHS, which then became the new standard. VHS players were simpler and more cost effective to manufacture, and VHS tapes offered a three-hour recording time as opposed to 60 minutes offered by Betamax. It soon became obvious which format companies and consumers wanted.

The same happened with HD-DVD versus Blu-ray. Due to the massive adoption of Blu-ray by major manufacturers like Sony and leading movie studios, it became the industry standard.

In the security industry, end users will decide which format will succeed. The proprietary formats can fight it out, but eventually, there will be one winner—the one deemed most user friendly and cost effective for business owners and forensic video analysts. In the meantime, law enforcement will continue to make do with the technology at hand but will look forward to a time when there will be a better way.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Security Today.

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