Spycam City

The Surveillance Society: Part One

Cameras stare as you browse at Barnes and Noble or rent a video at Blockbuster. They record the way you handle the merchandise at Macy's or how you glide to the music at the Union Square Virgin Megastore. Grab a latte at Starbucks, brunch on borscht at Veselka, or savor a martini at the Union Bar: cameras are watching every sip you take. Peering from skyscrapers with lenses that can count the buttons on a blouse three miles away, they watch every move you make.

Even Rudy likes to watch. After testing reaction to the monitoring of parks, public pools, and subway platforms, the city is quietly expanding a pilot program on buses. Cameras indistinguishable from lampposts have advanced from the perimeter of Washington Square into the heart of the park. They're already hidden at some bus stops and intersections to snag speeders and parking perps. More are on the way.

  • The Housing Authority is rushing to put bulletproof cameras in corridors throughout city projects.
    Hiroyuki Ito

  • At P.S. 83 in the Bronx, covert cameras cover the schoolyard; six other Bronx schools will soon follow suit.

  • Even university students are under watch, as activists at City College realized last June when they found a camera hidden in the smoke detector outside their meeting room. The administration had put it there.

  • Two local jails--Valhalla and Dutchess County--are adding cameras to their guards' helmets to go along with the ones in the visiting rooms and some cells.

    With little public awareness and no debate, the scaffolding of mass surveillance is taking shape. "It's all about balancing a sense of security against an invasion of privacy," Rudolph Giuliani insists. But the furtive encroachment of surveillance is Norman Siegel's latest lost cause. "I feel like Paul Revere, shouting 'The cameras are coming, the cameras are coming.' " says the New York Civil Liberties Union's executive director.

    All summer, a crew of NYCLU volunteers scoured Manhattan on a mission to pinpoint every street-level camera. Next month, Siegel will unveil their findings: a map showing that cameras have become as ubiquitous as streetlights. It's impossible to say how many lenses are trained on the streets of New York, but in one eight-block radius, the NYCLU found over 300 in plain sight. And as one volunteer acknowledges, "There are tons of hidden cameras we didn't catch."

    That's because it's routine in the security trade to buttress visible cameras with hidden ones, "so everything's covered and it doesn't look like a fortress," as one consultant says. These spycams scan unseen in tinted domes, from behind mirrors, or through openings the size of a pinhole. Under the joystick command of a distant operator, they're capable of zooming in or spinning 360 degrees in less than a second. If you listen to the people who install them, cameras are as common and elusive as shadows. But does anybody really care?

    No New York law regulates surveillance (except to require cameras at ATM machines). Statutes that prohibit taping private conversations have been outpaced by video technology. Your words can't be recorded without your consent, but you can be videotaped in any public place. And you don't own your image (except for commercial purposes).

    It took the Supreme Court some 90 years to apply the Fourth Amendment's privacy protection to the telephone. Before a landmark 1967 case, it was legal to bug a phone booth. When legislators finally reined in wiretapping in 1968, video was a speck on the horizon, and cameras were excluded from the law. Now Congress is inundated with privacy bills, but few survive the combined resistance of manufacturers, service providers, law enforcement, and the media.

    In 1991 and 1993, proposals to limit surveillance were killed in committee by a lobby of 12,500 companies. Testifying against rules that would have required companies to notify their workers--and customers--of cameras, Barry Fineran of the National Association of Manufacturers called "random and periodic silent monitoring a very important management tool." This alliance backs its rhetoric with cash. During the 1996 Congressional campaign, finance and insurance companies alone invested $23 million in their antiprivacy agenda. And so the cameras keep rolling.

    It's clear that surveillance makes many people feel safer. But researchers disagree about its value as a crime deterrent. The consensus is that cameras can curb spontaneous crimes like vandalism, but are less effective in stopping more calculated felonies. Though spycams are in banks and convenience stores, robberies at these places are staples of the police blotter. Hardcore crooks learn to work around surveillance: witness the masked bandit. And many cameras that promise security are only checked occasionally; their real purpose is not to stop a crime in progress, but to catch perps after the fact. Those reassuring cameras on subway platforms are there to make sure the trains run on time.

    It's telling that the camera quotient is increasing in the midst of a dramatic decline in crime. Clearly the spread of surveillance has less to do with lawlessness than with order. "Just don't do anything wrong," advises the smiling cop monitoring the hidden cameras in Washington Square, "and you have nothing to worry about."

    But Americans are worried. Last year, 92 percent of respondents told a Harris-Westin poll they were "concerned" about threats to privacy, the highest level since the poll began in the late '70s. Despite this concern, there's been little research into the effects of living in an omnivideo environment. Surveillance scholarship was hip in the '60s and '70s, but academic interest has dropped noticeably in the past 20 years. In the neocon '90s, the nation's preeminent criminologist, James Q. Wilson, says he "never studied the subject [of security cameras] or talked to anyone who has."

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