Bill Brown refuses to get paranoid. It’s just that he hates the thousands of surveillance cameras mounted on walls and utility poles around the city. So sometimes he talks into these electronic eyes, or reads Poe before the lens, or performs a scene from 1984 in Washington Square Park, just for the enjoyment of cops in the “communications” truck.
Brown’s problem with the multiplying spies isn’t personal, but constitutional: Should unmarked surveillance cameras be able to monitor public space? He doesn’t think so. “Private eyes, they’re watching you—they see your every move,” reads one of his blurbs, listed in New York weeklies and on his Web site, “Find out where surveillance cameras are located in midtown, so you can make sure they always catch your best side. Sunday. 2 p.m. Free.”
Lingering at the edge of the diamond district on a recent Sunday, curious strangers await the guide for their walking tour. The city’s better conspiracy theorists are here, not to mention a few Big Brother paranoiacs, one woolly hippie, and two blond sisters from Indiana on spring break.
“I can tell this is the group,” says Brown, 41, pulling smoke from a cigarette and sipping hot coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He introduces himself as the founder of the nonprofit Surveillance Camera Players, then hands out self-made maps that detail 129 cameras within the 24-block radius this midtown tour will cover. Three years ago, the New York Civil Liberties Union tallied 2397 cameras throughout the city. Brown, a proofreader by day, now estimates there are as many as 6000. Some are meant to provide security for office buildings, some to deter drug dealers, and some to entertain Web surfers. Most go unnoticed by the people whose images are beamed around the world.
“Overlapping systems of surveillance are being built all around us,” he tells the group, in a smart and cautious tone. “Notice, no labels or warning signs on these cameras. And that’s the problem. We don’t know who’s watching.”
Some of the tourists pull out cameras of their own and snap a picture of Brown as he points to the first electronic eye, tucked away in the lobby of 576 Fifth Avenue. “Notice its positioning,” he says. “In addition to watching the front door, it’s also pointing out into public space and recording information about the passersby: Who are they with? What are they wearing? What are they smoking? Are they drinking Coca-Cola or Pepsi?”
The group peers at the lens. Hidden in a white plastic shell, the camera looks like a frightened turtle.
“OK, everybody wave to the camera.”
Sunday shoppers and tourists join the walkers, heading toward four tinted globes dangling from street posts outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Each globe contains a monitoring device.
“These cameras have nothing to do with crime,” Brown says. “That’s why the camera doesn’t route to a cable inside the cathedral. If it did, a policeman could spring out immediately and stop a crime. But here, the purpose is to digitally monitor the gay and lesbian activists protesting the policies of the Catholic Church.”
He shows the walkers a small box mounted behind one camera. A phone number—possibly an Internet dial-up—is printed on the case.
“A hacker could look at what the camera is displaying, or we could go directly to it and watch it on a laptop,” he says. “This device is very insecure, an indicator of the police attitude toward this technology. Cavalier—and sloppy.”
That’s a strong charge, but the NYPD won’t respond. A spokesperson says the department cannot reveal any information on surveillance cameras because verifying their locations would reduce their effectiveness.
“How do you really know someone’s actually watching?” asks one of the paranoiacs.
“Do they have a cable plugged into your foot?” asks one suspicious idiot.
Sagging toward the rear of the tour, the two sisters from Indiana are cracking up. “We’re only small-town folk,” says one, “but it seems kinda obvious that there are cameras everywhere.” Neither the urban surveillance nor Brown’s obsession with it surprises her. “Why, back home we all have cameras on the sides of our barns—to keep track of our herds. Everybody’s got one problem with something. I think he just hit his.”
Actually, Brown has a few problems. Back in 1997 he filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI to find out whether the feds have a dossier on him in New York. The answer was positive, he says, but because the “electronic surveillance” file was still active, the bureau wouldn’t release it. Ever since, Brown has waited for a chance to sue the city for violation of his Fourth Amendment right to privacy. He needs an attorney, preferably someone skilled in constitutional and criminal law and willing to take the case pro bono. It’s a tall order for free work. Courts have historically held that the eyes of a camera are no different from the eyes of a police officer walking a beat.
But advances in technology have given cameras power that far exceeds the capabilities of the street cop. Linked to vast databases, cameras can instantly compare an individual’s face to those of fugitives. Officers can zoom in from hundreds of yards, or use infrared beams to peer through walls.
For the last couple of years, Brown’s strategy was to place big signs reading “WARNING: YOU’RE BEING TAPED” around Washington Square Park, get himself collared in the process, then heroically sue the city for false arrest. The last person to take that tack received a petty summons for littering. So it’s back to the drawing board.
Whether Bill Brown finds the right lawyer or not, he thinks the NYPD should, at the very least, place warning signs on the cameras as a deterrent to crime. Even the cop sitting watching Washington Square agrees on that point. “That’s a pretty good idea,” says Officer Tarek Otero, who has been stationed in the communications van for six months. “But I tell you what, with all the high technology going on, these cameras aren’t going anywhere. The cameras help us fight crime. If we can’t see it, the Eyes in the Sky will.”
Back in midtown, the size of the group has doubled. Brown stops at Rockefeller Center. The coffee in the Styrofoam cup must be ice-cold. He sucks on his cigarette.
“These surveillance cameras strike at the single most beautiful quality about New York, which is, quite obviously . . .” The crowd inches closer, huddling to hear the next words, zooming in on proofreader Bill Brown, his stubbly chin, his coffee-stained teeth. They draw their cameras.
“The ability to become anonymous.”