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In America's most dangerous city, fighting crime with surveillance tech

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Law enforcement in Camden, New Jersey deploy a $1.8 million surveillance system in an effort to monitor and curb drug-related activity. The data will be shared regionally.

Camden, New Jersey is generally not a place you want to find yourself late at night. But local law enforcement are using extensive surveillance technology to transform what has been thrice named "America's most dangerous city" into something more suitable for families.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on how the Camden County Prosecutor's Office and Camden Police Department are using a surveillance network nicknamed "Eye in the Sky" to monitor high-crime street corners in an effort to stymie criminal activity.

It's not just a matter of using cutting-edge tools to fight the worst drug-related crime in the country; rather, it's an efficiency maneuver to retain crime-busting performance after deep personnel cuts last year.

Claudia Vargas reports on the $1.8 million, 81-camera system:

During the last four weeks, Big Brother in Camden has taken note of 624 vehicles whose occupants did something suspicious near one of the city's busiest open-air drug markets, Sixth and York Streets.

The owners of these vehicles will receive letters next week warning them that their vehicles were seen - by the city's Eye in the Sky surveillance network - in the high-crime and drug-trafficking area.

"Not only has your vehicle and tag number been recorded, appropriate criminal and/or traffic offenses may be charged if our investigation reveals your vehicle and occupants to be involved in illegal activity," the letter reads.

The debate around personal privacy as it pertains to surveillance remains alive with this program -- what if the system is wrong, is it unethical to tell you where you've been, et cetera -- but what is perhaps just as interesting is how the surveillance system impacts regional policing efforts. The surveillance data is shared with other area police departments in an effort to break down silos between local law enforcement.

Early data results suggest that Camden's drug problems are really the Delaware Valley's drug problems: the majority of suspicious activity flagged by the operation was caused by residents of the suburban communities that surround Camden, such as Cherry Hill and Sewell.

For now, the system won't be used in neighboring Philadelphia, which has three times as many surveillance cameras of its own but 14 times the land area and 20 times the population. Nonetheless, it wouldn't be surprising if Camden's surveillance data was shared across the river in an effort to curb interstate drug trafficking.

Photo: Michael Hicks/Flickr

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure