Even before September 11th, New York City was a heavily surveilled city: in 1998, the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) counted and mapped out the locations of exactly 2,937 surveillance cameras installed in public places in Manhattan. This landmark project was initiated in response to then-Mayor Giuliani's July 1997 decision to allow the New York Police Department to install permament surveillance cameras in such public or city-controlled places as Washington Square Park, City Hall and several Housing Authority projects, including Ulysses S. Grant and Lillian Wald in Manhattan, the Albany Houses in Brooklyn and the South Jamaica Houses in Queens. (The NYPD hadn't been allowed to use always-operating surveillance cameras in public places since the early 1970s, when it was found that these cameras weren't cost effective: they didn't stop or solve any serious crimes, and yet cost a great deal of money to install, maintain and operate. With regards to cost-effectiveness, nothing has changed since then, despite great advances in the technologies of video cameras and wireless networks: the cameras still don't deter or solve serious crimes, and they still cost a great deal of money to operate on a 24-hour-a-day basis.)
Since 1998, the total number of public cameras (which can be operated by either the police or private security firms) has grown dramatically. In Times Square, for example, the number of cameras has tripled since 1998. If we assume that Times Square is representative of the city as whole, then the total number of cameras in Manhattan is probably approaching 9,000. This number translates into an average of 4 cameras per city block, or one camera per street intersection. Such surveillance -- easily the heaviest in the United States -- not only violates the constitutionally protected rights to be left alone, to be free from unreasonable (televisual) searches and seizures, but it also destroys the very thing that New Yorkers and tourists love about the city: its great crowds of people, in which it is possible to be anonymous (no matter how striking-looking or famous you are), in which it is possible to disappear and then re-appear as someone else.
Keep in mind that such an estimate (9,000 total cameras) is conservative: there are, no doubt, a number of public cameras in operation that can't be seen because they are too small, too high up, or located on things that move (ships, vans, helicopters and spy planes). Also keep in mind the facts that very few of these 9,000-plus cameras are part of the so-called "war on terrorism," and that most of them were installed during the prior "war," that is, the one on "drugs." The post-September 11th effect -- at least where the video surveillance of public places is concerned -- has only just begun.
Though the New York ACLU didn't follow-up on the map it made back in 1998, its pioneering efforts created an intellectual environment in which it has been possible to condemn public surveillance without appearing to be ill-informed, alarmist or paranoid. In the last 5 years, two other groups -- the Institute for Applied Autonomy and the Surveillance Camera Players, of which I am a member -- have undertaken to put the old ACLU map to good use and to make new, up-dated maps of Manhattan. As a result of the combined efforts of these groups, New York City is at the forefront of the just-emerging anti-surveillance/pro-privacy movement in America. Nowhere else are maps available. For example: at the University of Texas (UT), the student newspaper has found it necessary to sue UT in court to force it to release such basic information as the cost, number, locations and technical abilities of the cameras in use on campus. The University had refused on the grounds that such a release would compromise "national security." As a result, the Attorney General of Texas has gotten involved -- and on the side of the student newspaper, not the University.
(Written by Bill Brown and published in the "Genesis" issue, May 2003, ANIMAL New York.)
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