Spycam City

The Surveillance Society: Part One

The template for storing and retrieving images is Citibank's futuristic monitoring center in Midtown (this reporter was asked not to reveal the location), where 84 PCs flash images in near-real time from every branch in the city and beyond. Every day over a quarter of a million metro New Yorkers pass under these lenses. When the bank upgrades to digital in the next year or so, each image will be recorded and archived for 45 days.

What alarms civil libertarians is that "no one knows what happens to the tapes once they are recorded, or what people are doing with them," as Norman Siegel says. In fact, mass surveillance has created a new kind of abuse. Last summer, a police sergeant in Brooklyn blew the whistle on her fellow officers for improper use of their cameras. "They were taking pictures of civilian women in the area," says the policewoman's attorney, Jeffrey Goldberg, "from breast shots to the backside."

But you don't need a badge to spy, as plaintiffs around the country are discovering:

At a Neiman-Marcus store in California, a female worker discovered a hidden camera in the ceiling of her changing room that was being monitored by male colleagues. At the Sheraton Boston Hotel, a union president invited a comrade to view a videotape of himself in his underwear. The hotel was monitoring its workers' changing rooms.

In Maryland, a 17-year-old lifeguard was videotaped changing into her bathing suit by her supervisor at the county swimming pool. Elsewhere in that state, a couple discovered that a neighbor had installed two cameras behind bathroom heating ducts and had monitored them for six months.

On Long Island, a couple discovered a pinhole camera watching the bedroom of their rented apartment. It had been planted by the owner. In Manhattan, a landlord taped a tenant having sex with his girlfriend in the hallway, and presented it along with a suggestion that the tenant vacate the premises. He did.

In this laissez-faire environment, whoever possesses your image is free to distribute it. And just as images of Bill Clinton leading a young woman into his private alcove ended up on Fox News, so can your most private moments if they are deemed newsworthy--as one Santa Monica woman learned to her horror when footage of her lying pinned inside a crashed car, begging to know if her children had died, ended up as infotainment. The paramedic, as it turns out, was wired.

The harvest from hidden cameras can also end up on the Internet, via the many Web sites that offer pics of women caught unaware. There are hidden toilet cams, gynocams, and even the intrepid dildocam. Though some of these images are clearly staged, others are real. Their popularity suggests that whatever the rationale, surveillance cameras resonate with our desire to gaze and be gazed upon. As J.G. Ballard, author of the sci-fi classic Crash, puts it, these candid-camera moments "plug into us like piglets into a sow's teat, raising the significance of the commonplace to almost planetary dimensions. In their gaze, we expose everything and reveal nothing." But exposure can be a means to an end. "Once the new surveillance systems become institutionalized and taken for granted in a democratic society," warns Gary Marx, they can be "used against those with the 'wrong' political beliefs; against racial, ethnic, or religious minorities; and against those with lifestyles that offend the majority."

Earlier this month, New York police taped large portions of the Million Youth March in Harlem. In the ensuing furor over whether the tapes accurately portrayed the police response to a rowdy activist, a more basic issue went unaddressed. Social psychologists say that taping political events can affect a participant's self-image, since being surveilled is unconsciously associated with criminality. Ordinary citizens shy away from politics when they see activists subjected to scrutiny. As this footage is splayed across the nightly news, everyone gets the meta-message: hang with dissenters and you'll end up in a police video.

But even ordinary life is altered by surveillance creep. Once cameras reach a critical mass, they create what the sociologist Erving Goffman called, "a total institution," instilling barely perceptible feelings of self-consciousness. This process operates below the surface of everyday awareness, gradually eroding the anonymity people expect in cities. Deprived of public privacy, most people behave in ways that make them indistinguishable: you're less likely to kiss on a park bench if you know it will be on film. Over the long run, mass monitoring works like peer pressure, breeding conformity without seeming to.

Communications professor Carl Botan documented these effects in a 1996 study of workplace surveillance. Employees who knew they were being surveilled reported higher levels of uncertainty than their co-workers: they were more distrustful of bosses, their self-esteem suffered, and they became less likely to communicate. The result was "a distressed work force."

The anxiety of being watched by an unseen eye is so acute that the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham made it the basis of his plan for a humane prison, in which inmates were to be controlled by the knowledge that they might be under observation. Bentham called this instrument of ambiguity the Panopticon.

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