You're walking down the street. Someone jumps out from behind a wall, grabs your purse and takes off.
Time to cancel the credit cards and get a new purse?
Perhaps not. A Portland, Ore.-based company that specializes in video surveillance solutions has just launched an online crowdsourced mapping tool in Boulder County that could help victims of crime track down perpetrators and bring them to justice.
The tool is called CommunityCam, and it allows people to map online where surveillance cameras are located in a given area. Victims can visit the map -- at videosurveillance.com/communitycam -- to see if there was a camera in the immediate area where the crime was committed, be it a mugging or a hit-and-run.
They can then request that police try to obtain any footage captured.
"We're seeing this as a community-based safety initiative that is being embraced because of the shortfalls in law enforcement budgets," said Josh Daniels, founder of CommunityCam and president of VideoSurveillance.com. "Most of the cameras out there have been in place for years, and people simply don't know that they are out there."
So far, 32 cameras in Boulder have been plotted on CommunityCam, with another 500 or so mapped in the Denver area. The first city to go online was Philadelphia, late last year. The Denver metro area went live last month.
CommunityCam is also operating in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Oakland, Chicago and Orange County, Calif. Daniels estimates that about 10,000 surveillance cameras have been mapped nationwide on CommunityCam.
Daniels said the service is meant to chronicle cameras that are operating in the public domain, like those mounted to businesses, schools and government buildings. Anyone can use the map for free, either to look for cameras or to list them.
He said the company uses "statistical sampling" to ensure that impostors don't go on the map and list fake cameras all over the place.
Aside from obtaining footage of criminal activity, CommunityCam can also be used to map out safe routes to school or to formulate routes for members of jogging or cycling clubs comforted by the idea of traveling a circuit covered by surveillance cameras, Daniels said.
Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner said he wasn't certain how helpful the service would be to his department, given that capturing surveillance footage is a standard investigative technique.
"Whenever we have a crime out in the open or in front of a business, we always inquire whether they have video footage available," he said.
Beckner said there might be instances when it's better that would-be criminals don't know where surveillance cameras are located, so that they don't have an advantage in plotting their crimes or escape routes.
Judd Golden, chairman of the Boulder chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there's a term -- "the displacement effect" -- for the phenomenon of moving bad deeds out of the view of the camera eye.
Also, there's a risk people will take false comfort from knowing the location of surveillance cameras, when in fact the cameras are only helpful after the fact, he said.
"These cameras don't monitor things in real time," Golden said. "It's a false sense of security."
He also said a service like CommunityCam could have the effect of acclimating society to the proliferation of surveillance cameras everywhere and making their use even more acceptable. He notes that VideoSurveillance.com makes its money in the surveillance camera business and that CommunityCam could serve as a marketing tool for the company.
"This is a community service that is trying to make people feel warm and fuzzy about surveillance cameras everywhere," Golden said.
Daniels said surveillance cameras have proven valuable in fighting crime and bringing guilty parties to justice. Most famously, the Boston Marathon bombers were identified after they appeared on security footage captured on private cameras operating at a nearby department store.
"There are clearly some folks who are averse to cameras in the public domain, but they are in the small minority," he said. "The good outweighs the downside."