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.