You're being watched, New York!

Walking tours are one of the best ways to discover New York City, and one unique walking tour attempts to discover some of the hundreds of surveillance cameras monitoring the Big Apple.

Anti-surveillance activist Bill Brown leads the tours in an attempt to raise awareness of the prevalence and purpose of the cameras.

The tour highlights a debate over security versus privacy and civil liberties that has gained increased currency since the 11 September attacks.

Security versus civil liberties

If you ever have the feeling of being watched, it is most likely not simple paranoia.

In 1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a team of 40 volunteers around the city to take a census of surveillance cameras.

They found almost 3,000 cameras, and Mr Brown estimates that several thousand more cameras have been installed since then. And he believes that some Americans might feel the increased surveillance might be necessary to prevent additional terrorist attacks.

"We're being asked to give up civil liberties for security," Mr Brown said, but he sees it as a false choice and quoted founding father Benjamin Franklin: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

And he [Brown] questions the efficacy of cameras, noting that a number of security cameras were installed at the World Trade Centre following the 1993 bombing.

"There were so many cameras at the World Trade Centre site that I couldn't count them, and they didn't do any good," he said.

He believes that the cameras violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees citizens be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.

To make his point, he read the Fourth Amendment below one of the security cameras, saying that those manning the camera would be able to read the text of the amendment over his shoulder.

Stretching thin resources

Since the September 11 attacks, law enforcement officials are considering increasing their use of surveillance cameras.

Law enforcement agencies, especially police departments in New York and Washington, find themselves having to add increased anti-terrorism duties to other law enforcement duties.

Police say cameras allow them to monitor more areas with fewer personnel, dispatching patrols to areas where they observe suspicious activity.

During terrorist alerts, police in Washington now operate a $7m central surveillance facility that takes feeds from 20 cameras in and around key areas such as the Capitol, the White House and several important monuments.

Police in Washington have invited the American Civil Liberties Union, a civil liberties organisation, to review the system and help craft policies for its use which respect privacy and constitutional rights, says Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey.

Watching the watchers

Mr Brown says that the New York Police Department has not been as open about their use of cameras since the 11 September attacks.

And authorities are sensitive to revealing the security they provide. Mr Brown cautioned those on the tour about taking pictures near the United Nations, saying that it was against federal law.

"They can shoot us, but we can't shoot them," he said. And indeed, a government security officer ordered the film crew to stop.

Later, the tour paused across the street a gated entrance near the United Nations. A camera had been panning the area in front of the gate.

"It's not moving anymore," a woman on the tour noted. The camera was trained on the group, and it did not start moving until the group began moving again.

Mr Brown believes that if the archetypical New Yorker were aware of all the cameras their response would be [like that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver]: "You looking at me? Hey, are you looking at me?"

Indeed, one New Yorker on the tour was concerned about the increased use of cameras. She said her privacy was very important to her.

But when it comes to balancing privacy and security, she said, "I can see both sides of the debate."

[Written by By Kevin Anderson and published by BBC News Online on 11 March, 2002.]

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