Some of the most populated cities in the United States are under a heavy amount of surveillance, according to new research by Comparitech. The average city has around six cameras per 1,000 people but the most-watched city, Atlanta, had almost 50 cameras per 1,000 people*.

From monitoring traffic to preventing crime, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have a range of purposes. But with increasingly-high resolutions, more remote access to live video streams, and the utilization of technologies like facial recognition and Ring doorbell cameras – just how much is too much when it comes to police surveillance?

To find out which of the top 50 most populated cities in the US are under the most surveillance, we looked at the number of fixed CCTV cameras, the number of cameras accessed through real-time crime centers, the number of private cameras within the police force’s network, cameras on public transport facilities, traffic cameras, and streetlight cameras. We also looked at whether or not the police department in question was utilizing Ring doorbell technology which gives them access to private cameras installed outside the public’s homes. However, these figures were not included in our totals due to unclear figures.

What did we find?

We were able to find data for 39 of the 50 most populated cities (based on Census.gov data), so these 39 are included in our analysis (to see which were omitted, please see the methodology section). Across these we found:

  • Nearly 270,000 cameras monitoring a population of 44.2 million people. This gives an average ratio of 6 cameras per 1,000 people
  • Atlanta was the most surveilled city with a ratio of 48.93 cameras per 1,000 people
  • Chicago had the highest number of cameras in total: 32,000
  • 28 of the police departments have access to Ring doorbell technology and have submitted a total of 728 requests for access to footage between them in Q3 2020

The 10 most surveilled cities in the United States

Based on the number of cameras per 1,000 people, these are the most surveilled cities in the United States:

  1. Atlanta, Georgia – 24,800 cameras for 506,811 people = 48.93 cameras per 1,000 people*
  2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – 28,064 cameras for 1,584,064 people = 17.72 cameras per 1,000 people
  3. Denver, Colorado – 12,273 cameras for 727,211 people = 16.88 cameras per 1,000 people
  4. Washington, District of Columbia – 11,441 cameras for 705,749 people = 16.21 cameras per 1,000 people
  5. San Francisco, California – 14,266 cameras for 881,549 people = 16.18 cameras per 1,000 people
  6. Las Vegas, Nevada – 10,208 cameras for 651,319 people = 15.67 cameras per 1,000 people
  7. Detroit, Michigan – 8,836 cameras for 670,031 people = 13.19 cameras per 1,000 people
  8. Chicago, Illinois – 32,000 cameras for 2,693,976 people = 11.88 cameras per 1,000 people
  9. Portland, Oregon – 6,411 cameras for 654,741 people = 9.79 cameras per 1,000 people
  10. Fresno, California – 4,706 cameras for 531,576 people = 8.85 cameras per 1,000 people

*Some of the 12,800 cameras available to the Atlanta Police Department through its surveillance camera network include some of the cameras located at the airport. But it also includes public CCTV, as well as school district cameras, traffic cameras, and private cameras shared with the police department. However, even if we only counted the 12,000 in the public transport network (removing the 12,800 within the police’s surveillance network), Atlanta would still be the worst city for surveillance with 23.68 cameras per 1,000 people.

How does Atlanta compare to cities around the world?

According to our study on the world’s most surveilled cities (based on the top 150 by population), Atlanta would be the seventh most surveilled city in the world, beaten only by five cities in China and London, the United Kingdom.

To see all of the camera figures, sources, and limitations, visit this spreadsheet.

The top 10 most populated cities in the United States and their camera figures

  1. New York, New York – 31,490 cameras for 8,336,817 people = 3.78 cameras per 1,000 people
  2. Los Angeles, California – 22,327 cameras for 3,979,576 people = 5.61 cameras per 1,000 people
  3. Chicago, Illinois – 32,000 cameras for 2,693,976 people = 11.88 cameras per 1,000 people
  4. Houston, Texas – 3,043 cameras for 2,320,268 people = 1.31 cameras per 1,000 people
  5. Phoenix, Arizona – 716 cameras for 1,680,992 people = 0.43 cameras per 1,000 people
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – 28,064 cameras for 1,584,064 people = 17.72 cameras per 1,000 people
  7. San Diego, California – 6,628 cameras for 1,423,851 people = 4.65 cameras per 1,000 people
  8. Dallas, Texas – 4,480 cameras for 1,343,573 people = 3.33 cameras per 1,000 people
  9. San Jose, California – 1,122 cameras for 1,021,795 people = 1.10 cameras per 1,000 people
  10. Austin, Texas – 3,863 cameras for 978,908 people = 3.95 cameras per 1,000 people

Please note; San Antonio is the seventh most populated city but has been omitted due to lack of data.

Do more cameras increase safety and reduce crime?

One of the most common arguments for the installation of CCTV cameras is to increase public safety and reduce crime rates. We compared the number of public CCTV cameras with the crime indices reported by Numbeo, which are based on surveys of that site’s visitors.

As you can see from the above chart, there is hardly any correlation between higher camera figures and lower crime indexes. Broadly speaking, then, crime rates aren’t reduced by having more cameras in place.

Areas for concern

  • Ring Doorbell Technology: As previously mentioned, 28 of the 39 police departments we looked into had access to Ring doorbell camera footage. This can significantly increase a police department’s surveillance reach with Milwaukee, Wisconsin, submitting the highest number of requests for access from our most populated cities – 249 of the 728 requests (34.2 percent).
  • COVID-19 Related Technology: As public transport authorities look for ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19, people’s privacy may be at risk. For example, Miami Dade County is trialing the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track whether or not people are adhering to social-distancing regulations.
  • Smart Streetlights: While many cities look to replace their streetlights with energy-efficient LED lights, some are also turning toward smart lampposts that integrate CCTV technology. That said, in many places, these are being met with privacy concerns and resistance. For example, the mayor of San Diego ordered 3,000 streetlight cameras be turned off until measures surrounding the use of these types of technologies are in place. And in San Francisco, a plan for 40,000 streetlight cameras was pulled.

Methodology and limitations

Comparitech researchers collated a number of resources to get an estimate of the number of public CCTV cameras in use. We focused on the United States’s 50 most heavily-populated cities but omitted any city where we couldn’t find enough data.

Where possible, we have only included public CCTV cameras, including cameras installed on public buildings, cameras used by law enforcement, cameras installed on public transport, and traffic cameras with surveillance capabilities (i.e. automatic number plate recognition). However, in some instances, it may not be clear what cameras are included, meaning some private camera figures may also be included in the totals. We believe airport figures may also be included in Atlanta’s figures. Some transport cameras may also be located outside of the city limits but we have removed any where we feel this to be the case.

Due to a wide range of sources reporting estimates and a general lack of public information regarding CCTV cameras, actual figures may be higher or lower than what is indicated. To try and ensure our study is as fair and accurate as possible, we have opted for the lower figure where two different ones have been quoted.

Most of the data sources used are from the last few years but, in some cases, only older data sources were found. The dates of the sources are listed in the spreadsheet linked above.

The cities omitted due to lack of data are: San Antonio (Texas), El Paso (Texas), Tucson (Arizona), Mesa (Arizona), Colorado Springs (Colorado), Raleigh (North Carolina), Virginia Beach (Virginia), Oakland (California), Tulsa (Oklahoma), Tampa (Florida), and Arlington (Texas).

Ring Doorbell Technology figures: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1eYVDPh5itXq5acDT9b0BVeQwmESBa4cB&ll=36.194591702507964%2C-103.96982876449249&z=-1

Data researchers: Charlotte Bond, Rebecca Moody