At Citibank, a futuristic, $4 million surveillance system keeps a clear and constant eye on automated teller machine locations.
A far cry from the clunky closed-circuit television systems of the past, Citibank's system relies on a combination of real-time monitoring, digital video, and two-way audio to let the bank keep tabs on 132 branches and, when necessary, to intervene by voice via speakers in the ceilings.
"This is the first real-time, on-line system of this magnitude," said Steve Liguori, head of Citibank's U.S. retail branches. He spoke during a public unveiling of the system's midtown Manhattan nerve center this week.
"It's not videotapes that you can go back and review later on," he said, contrasting it with older video systems. "There is no other bank doing this."
Some banks are starting comparable systems in response to growing public awareness of security threats and to laws that require such advanced measures.
In March, Chase Manhattan Corp. installed a system similar to Citibank's but in just 25 Manhattan branches. It plans to add more. The video records are stored digitally on compact disc rather than videotape.
New York law requires banks to videotape ATM activity and keep the records for 30 days. But at Citibank cameras are monitored constantly, and the images they convey every two to three seconds are much clearer than the grainy, black-and-white pictures that sometimes appear with newspaper crime stories.
In the two years since it began rolling out the system, Citi has "virtually eliminated burglary" at the ATM sites known as Citicard Banking Centers, said James Biggin, the retired New York City police officer who heads the Citicorp subsidiary's retail security operations.
Other "incidents" like loitering or larceny have been halved, Mr. Biggin said. There were 30 in 1997, 60 in 1996.
"Loitering removals are dropping because the criminals know we are doing this," Mr. Biggin said.
All banks grapple constantly with security, and many have followed Citibank's lead in putting machines indoors or within vestibules. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and other legislators have introduced bills on ATM security, but no national standard exists.
Sharing its security knowledge, Citibank has demonstrated the surveillance system for half a dozen local and regional banks, plus foreign banks, ATM makers, police officials, and bank regulators.
At the hub of the system is a room with 84 video screens that flash images collected from 700 remote cameras. The room is staffed at all times with four or five security workers.
"We're trained in what serious incidents look like, and the police trust us," Mr. Biggin said.
Mr. Biggin, a former traffic cop, said, "You can learn to see a large area and understand it very quickly. I can make one pass through the room and see if the system seems normal."
If something seems mildly awry, a security worker might "talk to a person loitering, using a script we have prepared," Mr. Biggin said. More serious-looking problems might merit a call to Citibank's roving security cars-manned all the time by uniformed, armed guards-or to local police, who are linked to the center by radio.
The system also lets Citibank take preventive measures. Police precincts fax pictures of suspected criminals to the center, which distributes them to branches and checks screens for matching faces. Citibank can cull images of people who loiter and share them with law enforcement authorities.
"We had a fellow who was doing scams last year, feasting on senior citizens" at ATMs, Mr. Biggin said. "We had a picture of him, we saw him show up" on a screen. The police were called, and the suspect was arrested.
The system has been in the works for more than three years, and its unveiling Wednesday marked the completion of its installation in the New York area. For the technology, Citibank considered several vendors before choosing AIT Corp. of Ottawa, Canada.
AIT-an acronym for advanced information technology-said its Rapid Eye product is used in a limited way by Bank of Nova Scotia and a few others.
Rapid Eye "provides remote access over existing communications paths to a closed-circuit television system," said Bernie Ashe, vice president and general manager at AIT.
He said Rapid Eye "transmits full-color images at high speeds" over phone lines. "Previously, any kind of video communication had to take place over special, dedicated lines."
Mr. Ashe said interest among banks is growing. "We are in discussions with lots of banks, but no one in the banking industry is doing what Citibank is doing."
Mr. Biggin said Citibank could have installed a system that piped in full-motion video. It found that the "postcard effect" of viewing frozen images was easier to monitor.
The surveillance center has also been linked to two farther-flung branches-in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.-that have had crime problems. Ultimately, Citibank hopes to hook up all its retail branches; the complication lies, Mr. Liguori said, in establishing ties to all the local police departments.
The next step is to place stickers on all ATMs saying they are "monitored for safety." These, Citi officials hope, will act as further crime deterrents.
Unlike the off-line ATM cameras that have nobody watching at the other end, the new Citibank cameras cannot be disabled by criminals without serious consequences. At the surveillance center, a screen that goes mysteriously blank is "an immediate red flag," Mr. Biggin said, and would probably prompt an instant call to the police.