Sep 7, 2012 ยท 2 minutes

The police presence at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week has been ridiculously intense. Every corner, it seems, has had a thicket of men in uniform. Packs of cops zip around the streets on bicycles. Others power around on motorbikes, in golf carts, and on horseback. The city got $50 million for security during the course of the convention.

A lot of the security infrastructure, however, is stuff we can't see, and it's more advanced than ever before. This afternoon, I escaped the afternoon heat by popping into a small Irish pub that was largely empty, because it was away from the main streets. In there, I struck up a conversation with a security contractor who set up a camera surveillance system at the main shopping center in town, where many media outlets have set up camp for the week. In fact, I spent a good part of my afternoon there.

What I didn't realize is that there were video cameras everywhere in that area, watching everyone in high-resolution detail. I also had no clue about just how sophisticated the surveillance technology is. The man at the bar gave me a run-down of the video technology being used, and then pulled out his laptop to give me a demonstration of what can be seen at the shopping center. Here's what I found out:

  • His company had installed cameras that could monitor a 360-degree field of vision without having to move. They capture footage of everything surrounding them, all the time. Surveillance officers can look at the footage in a split screen divided into four quarters, or in panorama.
  • Some cameras being used can detect specific behaviors within their field of vision and will trigger an alert for guards doing the monitoring. For instance, if a large crowd is all moving in one direction but a single person is going the opposite way, the camera will detect that as suspicious activity and send out an alert.
  • Some cameras are set up to count people. The security guy showed me how this works by pulling up live footage of the shopping center. He had customized the system by fusing separate pieces of existing technology. The software would detect whenever a person would cross a pre-set virtual line in a camera's field of vision. Whenever someone crosses the line, the software counts them in. He said the count is pretty accurate, plus or minus 10 percent, and can help with crowd control. When he showed me the video at 6pm Eastern Time, there were 7,608 people in the shopping center, according to the software.
  • Police and security guards can send live streaming footage to each other's smartphones and mobile data centers, or clips can be saved and sent instantly by email.
  • The software he was using was provided by the company VideoInsight.
For surveillance mavens, I'm sure none of this is mind-blowing information. But it drove home to me just how naive I am about how closely I'm being watched. These security measures might be a special case because of the Democratic National Convention, but it's clear that these technologies are becoming cheaper, more abundant, and increasingly mundane.

Insert obligatory "1984" kicker here.