One in the Eye for Big Brother

Surveillance cameras are so ubiquitous, we take them for granted. But some activists say monitoring public places needs a second look.

Anyone in Manhattan's financial district last week may have noticed a dozen or so twentysomethings [sic] sweeping the area armed with clipboards and wireless handheld computers. They weren't market researchers. Rather, it was a troupe of techno-warriors from the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA) scouting and mapping the locations of surveillance cameras. Their goal: to create a digital map of electronic eyes to let New Yorkers instantly discover what the group calls "the path of least surveillance."

[...] Indeed, without groups like the IAA, the average person might never notice the ever-increasing number of surveillance cameras, which tend to positioned at least 10 feet off the ground. And new, so-called dome cameras that look like art deco street lamps are able to zoom in and out on suspicious persons. Bill Brown, a privacy activist [with the New York Surveillance Camera Players] who has been mapping surveillance cameras in New York for the last two years [and who provided the IAA with the maps it used], estimates that there are at least 10,000 cameras in Manhattan -- an average of six per square block. On just one short strip of Wall Street I found 10 cameras recording passersby.

That's peanuts compared to some other metropolitan cities. In London, where the government began installing cameras in the mid-1980s to deter IRA terrorists, there are 10,000 cameras in the one-square mile "City of London" financial district alone. Across Britain, there are 2.5 million cameras. By some estimates, Londoners are caught on film 300 times per day.

That's what privacy advocates, including the IAA, want to avoid in the U.S. Since Sept. 11, fears of terrorism and ever-cheaper cameras have prompted government officials and private corporations to ramp up video surveillance in public spaces. In Washington, for example, the police are in the process of setting up a centralized surveillance center where officers will be able to view video from schools, neighborhoods, Metro stations, and prominent buildings around the city.

[...] EPIC and other lobby groups have put forth a powerful case to legislators and government officials. But grassroots efforts like the IAA's are showing citizens simple ways they can protect privacy. Advocate Bill Brown gives free weekly walking tours of Manhattan that teach New Yorkers to map the types and locations of city surveillance cameras. [...] Their message: Put technology to work to increase privacy. We'd be well advised to heed the warning.

(Written by Jane Black and published in the 15 August 2002 on-line edition of Business Week. Passages marked [...] indicate deletions.)

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