There are roughly 900 surveillance cameras in downtown Denver.
Tony Ibarra says that's a conservative estimate, of course, since some of the more principal blocks, like the stretch between Logan and Pennsylvania streets along East Colfax, have hundreds of cameras while other areas have none at all. "I think there's got to be at least one on every block," he says. And he should know: Ibarra and his brother, Greg, are the Big Brothers of Denver, the owners of Digatron Inc., one of the leading surveillance firms in the country.
The brothers have been doing surveillance for as long as they can remember. "It all started with our mother," Tony says from behind his cluttered desk. "Growing up, everybody in our family called her 'AP' -- you know, 'Associated Press.' She was the only one taking pictures, and she was taking them all the time."
Greg nods in affirmation.
"To think that we've come this far since then is amazing to us," Tony continues. "And we've done it all by just staying on the cusp."
In the early '80s, the cusp was selling car alarms around the area of 38th Avenue and Federal Boulevard. After graduating from North High School, the brothers served brief stints in higher education -- Greg at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Tony at "the school of hard knocks" -- before ending up back in familiar territory in north Denver. "We were working at the 7-Eleven," says Greg, "and we'd just go up to all the guys coming through there with the really cool cars and tell them how they should get an alarm. They'd get interested, then we'd set up a meeting and sell them an alarm." Soon business was booming, and they were selling alarms door to door and hawking their products at car shows around the city. A few years later, the company's scope expanded to residential surveillance, then to private business, and finally, in 1990, to government buildings in Denver. In 1997, a Fort Collins lobbyist who works in Washington, D.C., introduced the brothers to Bill Livingood, Sergeant at Arms for the U.S. House of Representatives. Soon after, Digatron scored the contract to install a surveillance system at the United States Capitol.
The brothers' work on the Capitol building earned Digatron national recognition as the first surveillance company in the country to integrate digital video recorders into security-camera systems. For clients, that meant that footage would no longer be recorded on unreliable, low-quality VHS tapes, and fewer employees would be needed to monitor the cameras. "It's virtual rather than sequential," Greg says. "There's no need to rewind or fast-forward like you had to do with analog video; all you have to do is click your mouse to move around in the recording. Also, the VHS tapes, because they were physical, the image quality would wear out over time. The digital images are always fresh."
"Since then," Tony adds, "government work has been our bread and butter."
The brothers have designed and installed different types of surveillance systems for a number of federal and state agencies, ranging from basic cameras for Denver Public Schools to high-powered digital video recorders for the U.S. Border Patrol that are capable of viewing objects up to eighteen kilometers away in the middle of the night. They also installed a four-recorder system on East Colfax between Grant and Pearl streets last year, from which they have already mined a series of quality clips of car wrecks, street fights and drug busts that, if compiled, could make for one hell of a blooper video.
Most of Digatron's cameras and recorders are full-color, weatherproof and tamper-resistant, with 360-degree pan, tilt and zoom capabilities -- not your average convenience-store camera. In fact, Greg and Tony began using H.264 video compression -- a standard of extremely high-quality video -- back in 2003, a full two years before tech moguls like Motorola and Apple began implementing it in many of their applications. On a few cameras, Digatron even uses facial-recognition software, which compares data with a database to distinguish individuals based on their eyes, jawlines, nose ridges, cheekbones and other facial features.
To manage all of the data that comes in, the Ibarras have a computer specialist on their twenty-person staff. That helps them stay ahead of technology, but it also means that they don't have to keep the technical aspects of their service on auto recall. So when they can't remember a particular fact, they often do exactly what most of us would: They google it.
"There, Tony," instructs Greg. "Type in 'H.264 vs. MPEG-4' right there. Okay, yeah, now scroll down, and there, click on that one. There we go."
Tony finds what he's searching for and reads aloud while following along with his pointer. "'This type of decoding is more complex and requires more computer-processor speed and memory because it uses more complicated decoding than MPEG-4 Part 10.' Yeah, those other compressions are slower and take up more space."
And while that technology was once advanced, the duo has now moved on to Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), a hardware/software combination that they believe is the future of surveillance technology. ISIS utilizes a set of complex mathematical algorithms to identify and isolate certain behaviors based on criteria specific to the camera user's needs. For example, a federal prison could install a series of cameras along its fences to catch potential escapees in the act. Rather than having a guard sit in a designated room to monitor the cameras for suspicious activity, the prison could use ISIS to recognize the behavior as it is happening. Anyone just milling around the fence would be recognized by ISIS but not noted. But if someone tried to scale the fence, the system would create an alarm condition and alert the prison guards of the escape attempt.
ISIS is only the first step in making surveillance more efficient. When used in conjunction with what Ibarra calls "chatback speakers," the ISIS technology can actually prevent crimes from happening. "Say we set up cameras in an area on Federal that's dealing with vandalism and graffiti issues," he says. "ISIS recognizes those selected features of someone who is preparing to break a window or tag a building. If the cameras are equipped with the two-way speakers, whoever's watching the video could then actually say to the kid, 'Hey, you in the gray sweatshirt, stop what you're doing immediately.' That's instant behavior modification. They aren't going to hang around for long when someone catches them in the act. They're going to split."
The Ibarra brothers are keenly aware of the Big Brother potential if the technology they supply is abused. "Surveillance can be used for good and bad, depending on who's using it," Tony says. "I think that the universal national identification cards that the federal government is trying to get passed are too invasive. And the Patriot Act -- that just allows the government to do pretty much anything they want as far as surveillance goes. It's important that we as citizens make sure that the government works for us, and not vice versa."
"On the other hand," contends Greg, "an individual's motivation for using surveillance cameras can be just as bad as any government agency's, so you have to put yourself on both sides of the fence in the privacy debate. If you're a criminal, you don't want the cameras because they catch you doing your crimes or make you move somewhere else to do them. And if you're way left politically, you see all cameras as an invasion of your privacy. But as soon as you're a victim of a crime, no matter who you are, the first thing you're asking is, 'Where's the camera? Where's the evidence? I want justice.'"
Regardless, both Tony and Greg agree that as surveillance technology becomes cheaper and more advanced, the number of cameras in places like downtown Denver won't have to be estimated; they'll just be everywhere. Tony estimates that Digatron has installed more than 3,000 cameras and recorders in the greater Denver area alone and that by the end of this summer, the company will be actively monitoring approximately 450 of them from a one-room, one-man control station in their Highland offices.
Some of the other cameras are privately monitored, though often not very carefully, because few of Digatron's clients have the time or the resources to do so. Still others are recorders whose footage is merely retrieved on a need-to-see basis.
"Really, we all just have rich imaginations," says Greg. "We want to believe that someone is always watching us, recording our every move. But most of us just really aren't that interesting."
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