Home Subway Security For cameras, looking at an in-house solution

For cameras, looking at an in-house solution

by Benjamin Kabak

Since the stabbing that left two people dead on a downtown 2 train nearly two weeks ago, much has been written about the MTA’s inadequate surveillance camera system. We know that the MTA and Lockheed Martin are in a legal battle over a system that hasn’t been implemented properly, and we’ve explored the benefits and limitations of subway security cameras. Today, amNew York has an interesting take on the situation. According to a Heather Haddon piece, the MTA’s in-house solution has worked much better than any outsourced plan.

Haddon discusses the two approaches and the economics behind it:

While hundreds of high-tech cameras that cost the MTA $20 million are broken, cheaper models installed a few years back are doing their job pretty well, amNewYork has learned. The simpler cameras, costing roughly half as much as the high-tech models that were contracted out, took about six months to install and have been used by police dozens of times to catch bank robbers and other criminals, elected officials say…

In 2006, the MTA signed a $20 million contract to install 900 high-tech cameras in 32 stations, including 14 in Manhattan. Those cameras were supposed to start rolling in 2008, but a key contractor went belly up that year, delaying the project, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz confirmed. “Since that time, the MTA … has continued to work to get the cameras online and all the locations will be fully operational by June of this year,” Ortiz said…

But the simpler system designed and maintained in-house has been nabbing criminals for years. In 2005, Assemb. Dov Hikind, (D-Brooklyn), allocated $1.2 million to get 120 closed-circuit cameras up in nine borough stations on the D, R and N lines. The system features $400 Panasonic closed circuit cameras on the platforms, mezzanines and stairways, capturing more angles than the other MTA devices, which point at entrances and turnstiles, union officials say. The recording device costs about $15,000 at each station.

If my math is correct, the MTA is paying $20 million to install cameras that, if developed in-house, would cost approximately $840,000 (32 stations at $15,000 a piece and 900 cameras at $400 each). I don’t have the details about the system developed with Lockheed, and I have to imagine it included some sensitive security measures that extended beyond just video surveillance. But I have to wonder too if, sometimes, the MTA is just trying too hard. If the in-house solution works and is cheaper, why throw out the baby with the bathwater?

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John April 8, 2010 - 1:34 pm

I think the key difference is probably closed circuit vs. something else. It sounds like the cheap, functional system basically just records video locally at each station. I would imagine the $20 million project would include networking, central storage/control/monitoring, etc.

Which is better depends on what your ultimate goals are. If you’re only looking for surveillance to view after the fact to try to track down criminals, then the closed circuit system works fine. But if you’re looking for any kind of real-time system to be able to see something happening right now, or to track people through the subways (think “24”), then you’d need a centralized system.

I think both have their place. I think maintaining closed-circuit systems makes some sense, so you don’t have all your eggs in one centralized basket (what if someone takes out the control center?). But I think having the potential of doing real-time surveillance has value too.

Abraham Moussako April 8, 2010 - 11:17 pm

from a privacy/ civil liberties perspective, I would prefer having a closed circuit, not a real time, camera system. the thing is, even with a central, real time monitoring system, a team of people can only see so much anyway- cameras work best-seemingly only- at catching criminals after the fact. they usually can’t stop crimes in progress, and as criminals rarely evaluate the consequences of their actions, the “deterrent” effect is marginal, compared to that of an actual beat cop in the area.

Al D April 8, 2010 - 2:47 pm

I’d make the following observations:

1. The prevailing wisdom is that an outside contractor with expertise is always the better bet, but this many times not the case;
2. A proper ‘make v. buy’ decision was likely not made;
3. Even if 2. was completed, there were likely politics at play to throw the business Lockheed’s way. (They do manage the MTA’s Data Center.);
4. There was either ‘scope creep’ or specs insufficiently defined;
5. If a key contractor goes belly-up, this is the usually the resultant mess, and;
6. The KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) principle was not applied.

Niccolo Machiavelli April 8, 2010 - 8:09 pm

The Lockheed Martin system never existed but sounded like it could. People liked it because it promised a technological fix, a creation of supreme security against terrorism. People (politicians, lobbyists, the Board) liked that enough to fund it with a whole lot of money. A good friend of mine with a history of military procurement told me one rule applied to this contract should have been, “never accept a bid from someone who hires more lawyers than engineers.” Lockheed did the simple stuff and charged the MTA progress payments for that. Then they came up with the lawsuit inducing excuse that they didn’t have sufficient access to the tunnels. Apparently they were shocked that the MTA ran trains in those tunnels.

Scott E April 9, 2010 - 8:17 am

Niccolo, I’ve heard the Lawyers versus Engineers quote before, and it’s true. However, with the limited knowledge I have on this project, I have to side with Lockheed on this one. They were promised access to the tunnels (which may not have been granted upon request), promised a fiberoptic backbone network (which didn’t exist in its entirety), and clean, dry equipment rooms (which were neither clean nor dry, if present at all).

Shook April 9, 2010 - 8:49 am


I do work for an MTA contractor, one who has performed work with Transit for years (as Lockheed has). While I want to disagree with you right off the bat (Lockheed knew that physical and system access are a PITA), I think it would be a fair assumption that you are right.

Unless they have a bone to pick, there is no reason to get lawyers involved unless you are going to lose lots of money, and think you have a solid case. Otherwise you’re just throwing good money after bad..


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