Times Square. The best place in the United States to lose yourself. Pretty anonymous, right? Think again. As many as 200 surveillance cameras are observing every move you make. That's nothing compared to Washington, D.C., where the chief of police says that he potentially has access to an unlimited number of cameras.
Americans have grown accustomed to surveillance cameras watching them in convenience stores, at work, and at ATM machines. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, many private businesses, town governments, and police departments are installing surveillance cameras, often in public places, at what privacy advocates say is an alarming rate. They want to know, "Who's watching the watchers?"
CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports on the growing debate between security and privacy.
Demonstrators were in Washington this weekend to be seen, to have their pictures taken – thousands of demonstrators protesting everything from U.S. Middle East policy to globalization. They were seen and photographed but not just by the television cameras they hoped to attract. The District of Columbia police watched every move they made. Blocks away, D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey looked on as officers monitored a network of surveillance cameras from their state-of-the-art command center.
"We have a total of 12 cameras, but we're able to connect with existing networks of cameras from both the Virginia Department of Transportation, Maryland Department of Transportation, and our own District of Columbia Department of Transportation." So how many cameras can he hook into? Ramsey replies, "Well, I mean, it's practically unlimited."
That's in Washington. In New York, tourists – not protesters – are being watched. Every Sunday, Bill Brown conducts walking tours of the surveillance cameras in Times Square -- as many as 200 of them, by his count, out of the 5,000 he has mapped in New York City as a whole. Like a modern-day Paul Revere, shouting, "The cameras are coming! The cameras are coming," Brown wants to warn Americans about what's coming with them: in his opinion, a serious erosion of one of the cornerstones of the Constitution, our right to privacy.
Says Brown, "What we're talking about here is whether I -- or anybody else -- is entitled to remain anonymous in a public place, like Times Square, or whether governmental agencies, private businesses, even Web surfers on the Internet should be allowed to look right at my face, to take my picture and do whatever they want with it. Right now, there are no laws to stop them."
Far-fetched? No way. We've gotten used to cameras in stores. We hardly notice them above ATM machines anymore. Jet Blue Airlines has installed them in its planes so the pilot can watch the passengers. Run a red light and a camera might catch you. Go to any computer and you can tour the world. Click on earthcam.com, and there's Times Square.
And then there's face recognition technology. It isn't foolproof yet, but it's out there. Tampa police tried it at the Super Bowl this year. The camera scans whatever faces it sees and electronically matches them up with images stored in a data bank. Face recognition cameras are standard equipment in casinos.
So the question is this: Where is the limit?
In addition to security already in place, the National Park Service is about to install surveillance cameras at the Washington Monument and other historical sites it operates in the nation's capital, and that's just fine with visitors Sunday Morning talked to: "It's gonna make people feel safer if there is someone watching or taking care of something like that, in case something does happen," says one. "It's a different world nowadays. It's just necessary. It's something that has to be," says another, adding that they would not have felt as strongly before Sept. 11.
A Sunday Morning CBS News poll out Sunday confirms that a vast majority of Americans (77 percent) approve of putting cameras at national monuments. A total of 80 percent do not think them to be an invasion of privacy. Better than 70 percent are willing to give up personal freedoms to fight terrorism and yet, less than half think the cameras actually reduce crime.
"Things have changed since Sept. 11. I think the community and the public's expectation is that we will take extra measures to help protect them. The cameras are part of that," says Teresa Chambers, chief of the National Park Police, who insists the cameras are intended as a deterrent. "Think of the awesome beauty of the city and the icons that are represented here. . . . Washington D.C. was a target on Sept.11. We had one plane crash. We had another one heading this way, and so we wanna make certain that these icons stand and that they're here for everyone to enjoy."
The D.C. Police Command Center, insists Chief Ramsey, cannot be used for spying on people. "People think that you can read the license plates off things and so forth. We don't have those types of cameras," he says.
Civil liberties watchdog Marc Rotenberg is skeptical. "This is a very funny attempt by the police to hide their capability," says he says. "You could walk into any Circuit City in the country and buy a video camera for less than $1,000 that would give you a 200-fold digital zoom." Rotenberg is executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). He says, "The question of cameras in the nation's capital is really on the front line for the future battle over the protection of personal privacy in this country." EPIC sends teams out to document camera creep, the proliferation of surveillance cameras throughout Washington, D.C.
The reception EPIC gets belies the official line that there is nothing sinister or secret about these cameras. Says Rotenberg, "We know the experience in other places -- such as London -- that without public oversight these cameras can proliferate like rabbits." In England, there are literally cameras everywhere -- 2 million of them, installed originally to combat IRA terrorism.
"The average Londoner is caught on film about 300 times a day, and no terrorists have been caught by the cameras' use," says Maryland Congresswoman Connie Morella, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia. "Does the nation's capital want to build such a system? …One of the biggest concerns that I have is that, once this system is in place, it will be too tempting for the police not to use it to its full force." Morella held hearings recently after learning that D.C. was installing the most extensive camera surveillance system in the United States without any regulations in place governing its use or penalties for violations. She now favors federal legislation. "I think the rest of the country, and the world, will be watching Washington, D.C., which makes it so significant, which is why I think our call for standards for camera surveillance makes a great deal of sense," says Morella, "and I think it makes it critically important that we establish that now, when other cities are looking at camera surveillance."
A total of 80 percent of the nation's 19,000 police departments already use some form of video surveillance. So far, no serious abuses have come to light. But for civil libertarians, that's not the only issue. For them, what's at stake is more ephemeral: our sense of personal freedom.
"Now, as new technologies are deployed, one measure of freedom will be our ability to continue to move through public spaces and to spend time with friends and family members and others without the sense that we are being monitored by the government," says Rotenberg. "And it was, in fact, you know, the revolution of the 18th century, that type of government intrusion into private life which led people to rebel, to say, 'We will simply not be ruled by a king who can send his soldiers into our homes.'"
For Bill Brown, pointing a surveillance camera at us without our permission is no different, which is why he ends each of his Times Square walking tours the same way. He holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution up to a police camera and reads the 4th amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath and affirmation in particularly describing the police to be searched and the persons or things to be seized."
(Transcript of audio portion of program that aired 21 April 2002 on CBS's Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood.)
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