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CBS Investigates: Who’s Watching You?

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MIAMI (CBS4) – Whether you see them or not, they see you. From highways, to street corners, banks to gas stations, school buses to metro movers, surveillance cameras are everywhere.

In reality, experts say this technology is already being used in ways imaginable only in fictional stories five or ten years ago.

For instance, in New York City back in May, 2010, 82 different public cameras and dozens of other private cameras caught an attempted car bombing in Times Square.

Only because of this technology was US Customs able to catch up to and arrest Faisal Shahzad as he boarded an airplane to flee the country and fly to Dubai.

Experts say the same systems are in place all over the place here in South Florida. Used by both public and private entities, the experts say these cameras see a lot more of you than you might imagine.

“The Person of Interest TV show is a little more real than you might think,” said Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent and an expert in surveillance technology at CNET.

“Right now it’s pretty easy to track someone,” said McCullagh.

An estimated 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States do just that, track someone. That’s more cameras than there are people in the state of Florida. Those cameras shoot 4 billion hours of footage of us every week.

And it’s not just the cameras you see.

“It can be (in a) fax machine, computer monitors, any device that has a power supply all the time,” said Tim Wilcox, a private investigator who specializes in sweeping for hidden cameras and bugs that have been planted in homes or businesses.

“We’ve identified over 40 different appliances that are plugged into a wall, clocks, lamps, radios, air fresheners, strip outlets (and carry a bug or surveillance camera),” said Wilcox. “A/C power strips are most common.”

In fact, this type of surveillance equipment has been around for a long time. Experts say the difference then and now is other new technology, such as facial recognition software and large computer storage capabilities, which have become so efficient and good that this new technology allows specific people to be tracked.

“You combine good surveillance cameras with database technology with bigger and bigger hard drives and you can store a lot of video about someone,” said CNET’s McCullagh. “And put it in a database in a way that would have been far too expensive even a decade ago or even five years ago.”

And it’s not just government but private industry and individual citizens who are watching you as well.

“Full perimeter protection is installed everywhere you look,” said Phil Bomeisl Security 101, a specialized South Florida security consulting firm that provides surveillance technology for a half dozen private companies in South Florida.

“Right here they have 59 cameras,” Bomeisl said as he showed CBS4 Investigates around one condominium complex where Bomeisl set up security systems. “From the time you come in (to the complex) security is able to see you.”

Bomeisl took us behind the scenes to see how several surveillance systems work.

“Notice there is a camera in lobby looking back this way,” Bomeisl said as he showed CBS4 Investigates around.

Bomeisl also showed off another system he helped install on the streets of Lauderdale by the Sea where as soon as you enter town police are watching and recording. You’re on camera whether you know it or not.

“They’re able to pan and see the entire area,” said Bomeisl. “They could zoom and see every facial hair on our face right now.”

Bomeisl also showed us hidden surveillance cameras used by Boca Raton police to monitor activity in a municipal park.

“I think the average person is a lot more unaware than they think,” said Bomeisl. “You’re likely that at some point on your walk down the street or driving along that you’re on camera somehow, somewhere being watched.”

All this worries people who are concerned with protecting your privacy such as Florida’s ACLU’s Howard Simon.

“Technology is completely over running our privacy rights,” said ACLU Florida executive director Simon. “People are losing their right to privacy without even knowing about it.”

There is one technology from the TV show that isn’t  quite yet matched by reality: facial recognition software used to track you in REAL TIME.

But experts say THAT capability is only 5 years or less away.

“We may have reached the point of no return (in the ability of facial recognition software and massive video storage). (We can now) record video of people walking down the street (or) walking down the sidewalk, said CNET’s McCullagh, “And then we could save all that video” until the point in time that real time facial recognition software, algorithms and computer power becomes good enough to crunch the data in real time.

“Then we run the algorithms in five years or in three years or whenever they become good enough,” said McCullagh. “And then we can create this cradle to grave record of where someone is just based on where they’re seen in public. And that’s something we haven’t seen before in the privacy sphere. And that’s a little worrisome.”

McCullagh says simply that within a couple of years the computer software and power will exist to allow someone to track you and keep up with specific, targeted people in real time just like they do right now on the TV show.

You can watch Person of Interest every Thursday night at 9:00pm Eastern on CBS.

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