Technology Stocks and Freedom

[...] Of course, if I'd been smart, I'd have bought Viisage. Now there's a tech stock that's partying like it's 1999! Tuesday, it rose $2.87 per share to close at $15.97; a month ago, it was worth just $1.94.

Viisage is one of the two face-recognition software manufacturers whose products are suddenly in the news. Using images captured from surveillance cameras, Viisage claims its software can identify the faces it "sees" by matching them with photographs already on file, thus -- in theory anyway -- picking the terrorists out of the crowd, assuming the terrorists have been obliging enough to have been photographed beforehand. Suddenly, everyone seems to think this is a great idea.

Actually, wait. Better make that everyone except those well-known extremists at the ACLU -- who claim the systems generate too many false positives -- and the nation's leading anti-surveillance camera group, the Surveillance Camera Players. "Benjamin Franklin said those who would sacrifice some of their liberty for increased security deserve neither," notes Bill Brown, the Players' spokesman in New York.

So for years now, the Surveillance Camera Players have been mapping, then protesting, cameras in public places by acting in short, politically pointed plays before their lenses. This may strike you as the kind of societal frivolity abruptly rendered obsolete by the events of Sept. 11. Brown, though, thinks the group's message has become more, rather than less, relevant; after all, he argues, the new Office of Homeland Security could act as the Big Brother whose appearance the Players have long been prophesying. In fact, protesters plan to perform today in Times Square -- on the one-month anniversary of the terrorist attack.

"The raison d'etre of the group has actually gotten stronger," Brown says. "The issues that we've raised have come to the fore."

These days, it isn't fashionable to quibble over new security measures. But the lack of debate has Brown worried. Already, he claims, one national cable channel [Arts & Entertainment network] has indefinitely postponed an hourlong program that was to have featured the Surveillance Camera Players and their views.

"It's really unfortunate that media outlets are putting subjects on hold for fear of appearing to be out of step with the times," he says. "They are actually depriving the nation of information people need to make up their own minds."

Viisage's system is about to be installed at an undisclosed East Coast airport -- Brown's group believes it's Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington -- so the debate may be over before it's begun. Still, though the extra surveillance may make the public feel better, the Players have doubts about its value.

"There were so many cameras at the World Trade Center that my group couldn't even map them all," Brown points out. "And none of them did any good."

Written by Laurel Wellman and published on 11 October 2001 by The San Francisco Chronicle.]

Contact the NY Surveillance Camera Players

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

NY Surveillance Camera Players