Spycam City

The Surveillance Society: Part One

One reason for this apathy is the academy's dependence on government money. "Federal funding does not encourage this kind of research," says sociologist Gary Marx, one of the few authorities on surveillance. "The Justice Department just wants to know about crime control. It's bucks for cops." In fact, Justice money is lavished, not on research but on surveillance hardware.

In this investigative void, a plucky new industry has sprung up. Sales of security cameras alone will total an estimated $5.7 billion by 2002. Cameras are now an integral part of new construction, along with sprinklers and smoke detectors. But the strongest sign that monitoring has gone mainstream is the plan by a security trade association to incorporate surveillance into the MBA curriculum.

Budding businessmen are interested in cameras because they are a cheap way to control wandering merchandise and shield against liability. Fast-food chains like McDonald's protect themselves from litigious customers with hidden cameras that can catch someone planting a rat tail in the McNuggets. Surveillance also helps managers track workers' productivity, not to mention paper-clip larceny and xerox abuse. Though most employers prefer to scan phone calls and count keystrokes, it's legal in New York (and all but three states) for bosses to place hidden cameras in locker rooms and even bathrooms.

Hiroyuki Ito

A 1996 study of workplace monitoring calculates that, by the year 2000, at least 40 million American workers will be subject to reconnaissance; currently, 85 percent of them are women, because they are more likely to work in customer service and data entry, where monitoring is commonplace. But that's changing as white-shoe firms like J.P. Morgan put cameras in the corridors.

Meanwhile, in the public sector, New York City transit workers can expect scrutiny for "suspected malingering and other misuse of sick leave [by] confidential investigators using video surveillance," according to a confidential MTA memo. Though the police would need a warrant to gather such information, employers don't." When most Americans go to work in the morning," says Lewis Maltby of the ACLU, "they might as well be going to a foreign country, because they are equally beyond the reach of the Constitution."

New York is hardly the only spy city. More than 60 American urban centers use closed-circuit television in public places. In Baltimore, police cameras guard downtown intersections. In San Francisco, tiny cameras have been purchased for every car of the subway system. In Los Angeles, the camera capital of America, some shopping malls have central surveillance towers, and to the north in Redwood City, the streets are lined with parabolic microphones. Even in rustic Waynesville, Ohio, the village manager is proud of the cameras that monitor the annual Sauerkraut Festival.

America is fast becoming what Gary Marx calls "a surveillance society," where the boundary between the private and the public dissolves in a digital haze. "The new surveillance goes beyond merely invading privacy . . . to making irrelevant many of the constraints that protected privacy," Marx writes in Undercover: Police Surveillance in America. For example, mass monitoring allows police to eliminate cumbersome court hearings and warrants. Immediately after a crime, cops check cameras in the vicinity that may have captured the perp on tape.

So, as surveillance expands, it has the effect of enlarging the reach of the police. Once it becomes possible to bank all these images, and to call them up by physical typology, it will be feasible to set up an electronic sentry system giving police access to every citizen's comings and goings.

This apparatus isn't limited to cameras. Recent mass-transit innovations, such as the MetroCard, are also potential surveillance devices. A MetroCard's magnetic strip stores the location of the turnstile where it was last swiped. In the future, Norman Siegel predicts, it will be possible for police to round up suspects using this data. E-Z Passes already monitor speeding, since they register the time when drivers enter tollbooths. Once transportation credits and bank accounts are linked in "smart cards" (as is now the case in Washington, D.C.), new surveillance vistas will open to marketers and G-men alike.

Already the FBI clamors for the means to monitor any cell-phone call. Meanwhile other government agencies are developing schemes of their own. The Department of Transportation has proposed a rule that would encode state drivers' licenses, allowing them to double as national identity cards. Europeans know all about internal passports, but not even the East German Stazi could observe the entire population at a keystroke. "What the secret police could only dream of," says privacy expert David Banisar, "is rapidly becoming a reality in the free world."

What's more, spy cams are getting smaller and cheaper all the time. "A lens that used to be 14 inches long can now literally be the size of my fingernail," says Gregg Graison of the spy shop Qüark. Such devices are designed to be hidden in everything from smoke detectors to neckties. Qüark specializes in souping up stuffed animals for use in monitoring nannies. A favorite hiding place is Barney's foot.

These devices reflect the growing presence of military hardware in civilian life. The Defense Department's gifts to retail include night-vision lenses developed during the Vietnam War and now being used to track pedestrians on 14th Street. A hundred bucks at a computer store already buys face-recognition software that was classified six years ago, which means that stored images can be called up according to biometric fingerprints. "It's all about archiving," says John Jay College criminologist Robert McCrie. And in the digital age, the zip drive is the limit.

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