Spy Camera Performance Art

A walk down a New York City street is unlike any other in the world--the Big Apple sidewalk has always been a public stage of fashion, politics and art with the liberating lack of conservatism that afflicts New York City's surrounding suburbs. New York is the place to re-invent yourself along the artistic, political or cultural lines of your choosing. Any personality type, no matter how extreme, mundane or esoteric, would find its place. New York is for people who want that city's particular mix of freedom, anonymity and community. That's what makes it one of the greatest cities in the world. That is, until now.

New York has become surveillance city--in fact has been since 1998, when then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir (now Department of Homeland Security consultant) secretly installed police surveillance cameras and trained them down upon the public spaces of Times Square. The New York Civil Liberties Union protested the installation--which was done without the public's consent--and conducted a Manhattan surveillance camera survey. They came up with a total of 2,400 cameras, and 75 for Times Square alone. Two years later, activist Bill Brown counted 131 in Times Square. His count included those privately owned cameras that are aimed at public spaces like sidewalks and parks. Bill Brown's most recent Times Square count is a whopping 260; if the threefold increase is any indication, then there could be more than 7,000 cameras watching the streets and citizens of Manhattan.

Bill Brown has an interest in where the cameras are, as he conducts surveillance camera tours every Sunday at 2pm, rain or shine, in various New York neighborhoods, including Chelsea, the East and West Village, the NYU campus, Midtown, Times Square and Harlem.

The Surveillance Camera Walking Tours, or SCOWT, is an offshoot of the Surveillance Camera Players, or SCP, an international performance/activist group which shows up in front of public surveillance cameras to flip the bird to Big Brother, as they have done in London, Barcelona, Bologna, Munich and even Arizona. Using handheld posters, the SCP performs adaptations of "1984," "The Mass Psychology of Fascism," "Ubu Roi" and original pieces critical of the surveillance/police state. ("This is a wallet," one such poster helpfully pointed out in a performance soon after the Amadou Diallo shooting, "not a gun.")

The radical kick of the SCP is to deliberately show up where the camera wants you to look away. And on his tours Bill Brown points out what those behind the monitors want to remain unseen. The word "tour" is misleading, as what Bill Brown does is a confrontational street theatre/lecture/consciousness-raising session, with a bit of audience participation thrown in.

"We're doing three things which make us suspicious," he routinely says twenty or so minutes into the tour, pointing out a trio of no-nos: "We're lingering, we're standing in a circle, and not one of us is wearing anything patriotic." With a mischievous smile, Bill informs his guests that they are now worthy of observation and suspicion by the police security state. You feel that you have stepped through the looking glass, committed Thoughtcrime possibly. Passersby stare, curious, maybe suspicious, possibly hostile.

Bill Brown's tour is also informative: Surveillance cameras, apparently, have evolutionary stages. The first generation are those obvious rectangular boxes on the cornerstones of old buildings in the city's pricier neighborhoods. Second generation cameras are the little red domes which showing up in various places: the lampposts around Washington Square Park, the facades of Midtown's tourist hotels and high-end corporations, and the awning of the headquarters for the Times Square Business Improvement District. These bug-eyed things can rotate 360 degrees as they follow you up the street, and have up to 16X magnification; they can count the change in your hand as you stand at the bus stop, or keep an eye on someone a mile away. They are also the ideal type of surveillance to be embedded directly into the architecture of new buildings, as they look innocuously like light bulbs.

Bill Brown's complaint with these surveillance cameras tucked up into building corners, as opposed to the beat cop on the street, is that the camera is not visually accountable. You see the street cop just as well as he sees you, and you would know if he was staring at you, taking notes or just giving you the once-over. In the new spy camera culture, citizens do not know they are being scrutinized and recorded by the little red dome five blocks away.

"The cameras are a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution," Bill Brown will tell you on the tour. The Fourth Amendment, which has to do with unlawful search and seizure by the powers that be, is also about not being subject to "visual search" by an authority that is not itself accountable. Bill relates it to Revolutionary Era: back then, he says, a British soldier could go up to an American colonist and demand to see his papers and demand to know his business. Today, no cop on the street can do that without due cause. With the new digital super-cameras, we are all being scrutinized by the police or a corporate private security force that is not visually accountable--due cause is thrown out the window when we don't know where they're looking, or how closely.

You might say, wait a minute. Aren't these cameras there to prevent crime? Aren't the cameras there to protect me and my fellow law-abiding citizens? Well, no. Due to cost-effectiveness, the NYPD keeps no records of any crimes ever having been prevented or solved due to surveillance cameras trained on public spaces. Also, there are no signs that tell us "You Are Being Watched by a NYPD Camera"--the presence of which would no doubt deter muggers. The cameras are not about crime prevention since no one knows they're there, unless you take Bill Brown's tour and he points them out to you. They are there to see you, not the other way around.

How did it come to this? Well, it was already underway with the Giuliani administration, but 9/11 hastened things along. After the World Trade Center was attacked, corporations could not get insurance for their buildings unless they had beefed up their security with, among other things, public surveillance cameras. This has given birth to what is known as the "smart building," like the Reuters Building at 3 Times Square and NYU's pale yellow student center, both of which are ringed with between 16 and 20 red digital surveillance globes aimed at the public sidewalks. The NYU student center doubling as a surveillance outpost is directly across from Washington Square Park, well-known gathering place for political activists.

Well, you might say, if they're not there to keep me from being robbed, if they're meant to be invisible, why the hell are they there? In a word, biometrics. The cameras we have now are there to pave the way for what comes next in public surveillance, and what comes next is face-recognition software, or what's known in the security industry as biometric identification. Companies like Viisage Technology Inc., which is developing software like FaceFINDER, FaceEXPLORER, FacePASS (this is for use with cell phones) and, for those with memory lapses at the ATM, FacePIN. Then there's Identix of Littleton, Massachusetts, which is partnering up with Motorola to embed face-recognition technology into cell phones using their FaceIt software. In the future, we'll log onto our cell phones with a digital snapshot of our faces, the chip matching our image with the facial database (known as a "facebase") back at the Verizon server. This data would of course be back-doored to the Feds when a suspected national security threat is using his/her cell phone.

FaceIT is also being peddled as a time-saver for the local police force. An officer would aim this new, smart cell phone into a crowd and capture a digital image; the software searches faces within its field of view and compares those images to a facebase of national security threats and notifies the patrol car of a match up. The cops don't even have to be there in person: Those red globular eyes dotting the facades of the new smart buildings would be connected to the same facebase, scanning the streets for evildoers; or the cameras might be aimed at future antiwar rallies outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square, or protest marches outside the UN, searching for terrorists or, failing that, troublemakers not in step with the new patriotism.

Problem is, face-recognition software doesn't work very well--false positives occur in 1 out of every 250 matches. Yet Viisage and Identix have lucrative government and corporate contracts, and their stock prices show it. On September 10, 2001, the price of Viisage stock was $1.94. A month later, it was almost $13. Today it's leveled off to about $5. But faulty technology has never stopped the government from implementing a new program, especially when the occurrence of false arrest, detention and interrogation eventually falls within the "acceptable" range.

But where do you draw the line? Bill Brown and the SCP draw it pretty early on. The stockholders of Viisage and Identix would no doubt draw it much later. How much electronic surveillance of the public free of public accountability is just right? Cameras in the park to snatch up NYU art majors buying dime bags? A camera in your cell phone telling the police exactly where you are and what you look like every time you make a call? Should we follow the VeriChip Corporation's trademarked slogan ("Get Chipped!") and implant pellet-sized identifying devices under our children's skin to render them permanently locatable? When does public safety become its ugly other self?

By the time our biometrically enabled cell phones rat us out to the cops, Big Brother will be long gone. That hulking cliche--the overbearing, mustachioed authoritarian--belongs in the pre-digital past. In truth, the future of mass control and surveillance will be sold to us for our own safety and convenience. The future belongs to Little Brother, the ever-vigilant digital eyeball in our very own pocket.

Bill Brown conducts New York surveillance camera walking tours every Sunday at 2pm. For the ongoing schedule/locations, plus the extensive history of the surveillance culture and pictures of SCP's performances, go to www.notbored.org/scowt.html.

(Written by Stephen Bracco and published in the July 2003 issue of Artists' Studio.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998