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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

Ever since then, the power of the watcher over the watched has been a focal point of thinking about social control. The philosopher Michel Foucault regarded the panoptic force as an organizing feature of complex societies. Surveillance, Foucault concluded, is the modern way of achieving social coherence--but at a heavy cost to individuality. Spycams are the latest incarnation of this impulse. Welcome to the New Improved Panopticon. Twenty-five years ago, Mayor John V. Lindsay installed cameras in Times Square. But he took them down after 18 months because they only led to 10 arrests--causing The New York Times to call this experiment "the longest-running flop on the Great White Way." No such ridicule has greeted Giuliani's far more ambitious surveillance plans and his cheeky assertion that "you don't have an expectation of privacy in public spaces."

It's a brave new world, but very different from the ones imagined by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty Four taught us to be alert to the black-booted tyrant. The Truman Show updates this Orwellian model as the saga of an ordinary man whose life is controlled by an omniscient "creator," a TV producer who orders the 5000 cameras surrounding his star to zoom in or pull back for the perfect shot.

As inheritors of Orwell's vision, we are unable to grasp the soft tyranny of today's surveillance society, where authority is so diffuse it's discreet. There is no Big Brother in Spycam City. Only thousands of watchers--a ragtag army as likely to include your neighbor as your boss or the police. In 1998, anybody could be watching you.

Additional reporting: Emily Wax. Research: Michael Kolber


This is the first of a three-part series.

Read part one: Spycam City.
Read part two: Spycam Chic.
Read part three: Spy Commerce.

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