Resisting the camera

CCTV and direct action

On 10 May 1997, 200 people in Brighton joined an organised "strike" against the town's network of cameras. In what was the first organised direct action of its type [in England], a colourful and ingenious range of tactics were used to disable and ridicule the technology. Lasers were used to "white out" lenses, camera poles were "occupied," and street theatre created havoc for the camera operators. One report in the activist magazine Do or Die explained:

Public ridicule of surveillance cameras is effective in diminishing their power -- and more importantly their dignity -- and making them highly visible to people who have simply got used to the street furniture. (South Downs Earth First!, 1997)

On May Day [1997], one camera pole in Brighton had been turned into a May Pole, dressed up with ribbons and surrounded by revelers. The effort to ridicule the camera was seen by some activists as only the first step in a long coordinated struggle to de-stabilise public confidence in the CCTV [closed circuit television] system:

If you really want to be artistic you'll need some etching fluid, which syringed from above into the cleaning liquid container (connected to the camera) would make some very interesting patterns on the lens. But artistic license is not, it should be pointed out, a defence in court for criminal damage. More fun can be had trying to destabilise the confidence in the relationship between the camera operator and the police on the ground. For example, some sea-front boy racers were caught pouring from a petrol can onto a car in front of a CCTV camera. When the police raced to the scene, the lads got out some sponges and said they were just cleaning it (the can contained water). The possibilities are limitless -- breaking into your own car, fake fights, huge dope-less spliffs, fake drug dealing. Making a false weapon from trashed circuit boards and bits of metal junk and pointing them at the cameras has also proved effective and arrest-proof. One man in Bournemouth dressed up as an eight-foot alien and completely freaked the police. Making plays in front of a range of cameras simultaneously sends a direct message to the control room that we are watching them watching us. Identical masks can be used for protection and confusion. (South Downs Earth First!, 1997)

The tactics which were pursued involved some knowledge of the technology:

Many cameras use microwaves to send information back to the central control room, and these can be disabled using reflective industrial foil strips attached to helium-filled balloons at the correct height (mind the wind!). Camera poles can be useful "lost children stations." Simply make a sign, and give balloons to children waiting under the cameras. Now who would take a balloon off a child? The great thing about getting police to come protect the camera/find out what is going on is that simply by being there they negate the very existence of the camera.

The demonstrators also used what they described as "mental environmentalism." Several thousand yellow and black stickers bearing the words, "WARNING You are being watched by Closed Circuit Television" had been placed in hundreds of toilets and personal spaces, provoking debate and outrage. From the perspective of the activists, the highlight of the day came when a blow up doll, the sort available for sex shops, was hoisted to the top of a camera pole and some rather embarassed firefighters were dispatched with their ladders to remove her (SQUALL 1997).

The Brighton action involved simultaneous strikes against a dozen cameras. One camera suffered the embarassment of having a bag placed over it. Another was occupied for over two straight hours by a local resident who complained that the camera looked straight into his bedroom window. Meanwhile, a group of protesters, carrying baloons, talked their way into an office block, telling workers they were having a "surprise birthday party for their Big Brother." Their target was a police camera situated on the roof but were thwarted from reaching it at the 19th floor.

Three people were arrested on suspicion of criminal damage after climbing on other cameras in the town centre. The Brighton civil rights group, Justice?, believes that a local resident, Peter Styles, was, on that afternoon, the first person in Briatin to be arrested for a CCTV related offence. Charges against Styles and two other protesters were later dropped.

The action in Brighton was described by activists as a "dry run" for a much larger and more aggressive action later in the year. Its secondary purpose was to send a signal to activists in other cities that the cameras should be targeted.

(The above report was taken from a chapter by Simon Davies called "CCTV: a new battleground for privacy," which was published in Surveillance, Closed Circuit Television and Social Control, a 1998 collection of essays edited by Clive Norris, Jade Moran and Gary Armstrong.)

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