"May I Ask What You're Doing Here?"

A Surveillance Camera Player shows that Providence is being watched

"The only reason I haven't been arrested doing what I do," explained Bill Brown, shortly after introducing himself to the group he was about to lead on a tour of downtown Providence, "is because I'm a white male of Central European ancestry." His ethnic background, however, hasn't kept him out of lesser confrontations with local, state, and federal law enforcement. Mostly, they just tell him to move along.

What Bill "does" may be a little unusual, but it isn't illegal, and his actions could ultimately be seen as a struggle to keep it that way. He is a founding member of the Surveillance Camera Players, a New York-based street performance troupe whose members dedicate their free time to performing original and adapted plays in front of the surveillance cameras that overrun public spaces across America. These cameras are supposed to be hidden, invisible eyes; making them objects of public attention not only democratizes the surveillance hierarchy, it pisses off the cops. The group's first public disturbance was an adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, performed with costumes and placards instead of dialogue in front of a surveillance camera in Manhattan's Union Square subway station in 1996. In an act that would set a trend for the SCP, a pair of New York City police officers stopped the performance before the play's climactic finale, a fight between a bear and a man.

SCP's web site states that as the group has grown, its members have gone from performing out of an appreciation for "how boring it must be for law enforcement officers to watch the video images constantly being displayed on the closed-circuit television surveillance systems" to educating others about the state of modern surveillance. They still perform plays occasionally, but no longer consider the police officers and security guards watching the monitors to be their primary audience. The performance is aimed instead at moving spectators, people who stumble across the show from the street.

SCP members also lead tours of heavily-surveyed neighborhoods in Manhattan on most Sundays, pointing out largely unseen cameras, as well as making and providing tour goers with maps that reveal each camera's location. During the recent tour of downtown Providence, Bill acknowledged that mapping all the surveillance cameras in Manhattan is impossible. The only attempt -- a map that marked each camera with a thumbtack -- is 15 feet long, too large to display its findings anywhere but the New York City ACLU office where it was created. Occasionally, when time and funds permit, the Surveillance Camera Players travel outside New York to map and tour another city. On September 24, Bill Brown came to Providence.

Psychogeography and other oddities

Bill started the Providence tour by handing out copies of the surveillance map he had made earlier that day (view the map at www.notbored.org/providence.jpg). He found many more cameras than he had expected for a city of Providence's size and economy: there are 94 in the downtown financial district alone. In the area he mapped, there are 50 cameras installed on privately owned buildings, 19 on federal government buildings, 19 on city government buildings or city-owned poles, and 6 at the tops of tall buildings. Bill had only found 40 cameras in New Haven, Connecticut, and 128 in a comparable sector of Boston. The preponderance of cameras on private buildings fits Bill's claim that surveillance is not about crime deterrence, as the public may assume, but "about protecting insurable property."

Almost all of the cameras are hidden above eye level, and several are many stories off the ground. "A city is constructed to make the people living in it see getting around as going through a series of tunnels," said Bill, his salt-and-pepper hair and friendly smile belying a pair of intense eyes that reminded some tour goers of Steve Buscemi. "Most people don't look each other in the eye when they walk by on the street, and the average height a person looks is way below the eye -- more like breast level."

The number of security cameras in an area like the one Bill mapped is always increasing. "Once I make a map, it's immediately obsolete," Bill said. The number of cameras in New York City has tripled in a period of five years since the SCP was formed, with the majority of new installations occurring in affluent areas. Providence's downtown area has a higher percentage of government-operated cameras than most cities, but it is likely that as Providence grows, the vast majority of new cameras installed will be on private buildings. Once police and other government agencies install their first wave of cameras, they usually have all they want.

Taking the turtle for a walk

Making the Providence map took Bill five hours, and required moving through downtown at a speed that Bill described as "taking a turtle for a walk." It's a phrase he borrows from Baudelaire, the nineteeth-century poet and literary critic who coined it to describe the speed of the flaneur, a Parisian pedestrian who strolled slowly and usually alone, without a specific destination.

During the rise of the city and the transition to urban life, the walk of the flaneur was considered an act of resistance, a purposeful indifference to the crowd mentality that the city and its mass transportation had borne. The crowd walked always together and always somewhere; it had things to do and places to go. The flaneur walked nowhere, uninfatuated with the speed of late modernism. Mapmakers in the Surveillance Camera Players continue the tradition of the flaneur by rebelling against the behavior of the contemporary urban flock, who either don't notice or accept a legion of cameras that make personal privacy impossible in urban spaces.

Walking quickly and with purpose prevents a pedestrian from noticing many small details of urban life, especially the details that were designed specifically not to be noticed. Besides being located in high, hard-to-see places, many newer cameras are intentionally disguised as lampposts or placed just inside the ground floor windows of skyscrapers, pointed out toward the street. Cameras are often placed in reflective spheres that make it impossible to determine where exactly they are looking. These expensive "globe cameras" can be found on federal buildings and lampposts near Kennedy Plaza. Kennedy Plaza's architecture creates a relatively low area in the middle of a busy financial district enclosed by tall buildings: cameras on the roofs and upper levels of surrounding buildings have an unobstructed view for blocks. According to Bill's map, there are three cameras along the bus station itself, and the surrounding blocks are home to two federal buildings with seven and ten cameras, respectively; a row of banks with six cameras; and City Hall, which has nine cameras.

The weakest of all Kennedy Center's cameras are probably the tube cameras atop City Hall, from the first generation of organized surveillance. But even these can read a message written on the palm of your hand from a half-mile away. The camera's oblong tube makes it easy to spot, though, and its inability to swivel creates a blind spot. The cameras are often bought in pairs to make up for this inadequacy, or are used in tandem with second-generation globe cameras; one camera scans a large area and the other zooms in on the faces of individuals.

The least common surveillance cameras are the third generation open-circuit television (OCTV) cameras. Usually disguised in a box or globe, these cordless cameras broadcast their signal wirelessly to a location any number of miles away. Bill's map excluded the three types of video surveillance that Bill says he "always misses": sky cameras from surveillance planes or satellites, tiny microwave cameras that can be hidden on a person's body, and cameras in moving vehicles such as cars or low-flying helicopters.

It is possible that, although Bill's tour didn't point out any of these more discreet cameras, some of these cameras saw the tour. As Bill was explaining the goals of his project and why it is not encouraged by law enforcement, a low-flying unmarked helicopter passed over the street where the tour was standing, then circled twice. Bill explained that such a large group stopped at a street corner appears as a potential threat because it stops the constant motion of the urban business center. Every gear that turns a capitalist society, from the money on the floor of the stock exchange to the people on the street, must be constantly moving. When the tour stops beneath a camera to return its gaze, or when the Surveillance Camera Players stop to put on a show, the motion of the street stops and the capitalist flux is paused. Outside a government building, Bill and the SCP are usually told to keep moving, if not threatened with arrest; a group of people surrounding and examining a security camera reeks of the "suspicious activity" targeted by the USA PATRIOT Act and other post-9/11 security measures.

Safety in numbers

The SCP bases its claim that surveillance strips an individual of his or her right to privacy on the Fourth Amendment guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures." Although originally adapted to protect citizens from physical searches demanded through colonial writs of assistance, today's legal debates are constantly reshaping the "reasonable expectation of privacy" from auditory, photographic, and televisual searches, and creating new loopholes exploited by new technologies.

According to legal precedent, privacy cannot be expected if one is exposed to public view (including view from the air) or if there exists a "reasonably foreseen" vantage point from which anyone can see or hear you -- police can perform surveillance from another vantage point as long as this "public" vantage point exists. Privacy cannot be reasonably expected in public places such as roads or national forests but can be in a public phone booth, a rock concert, or a sports arena. This distinction gets especially tricky when advances in surveillance "acquisition technology" -- bugs, wiretaps, and covert wireless cameras -- create vantage points that did not previously exist.

Even when a new court decision extends the Bill of Rights, the most recent privacy laws are not consistently obeyed. In 2002, the Rhode Island ACLU filed an open records release demanding copies of the Providence Police's unreleased policies governing the use of its surveillance cameras at public locations in the city. The department's response was to first claim it was exempt from disclosure under the law, but then to admit that it had no policies of any kind governing the use of the public surveillance cameras -- two years after the first camera had been put into use. The Rhode Island State Police continue to maintain surveillance cameras along interstate highways, violating a federal law requiring warrants for audio surveillance.

Bill's favorite example of surveillance abuse occurred last September at the University of Alabama. A usually stationary camera operated by the Alabama State Troopers Office to publicly broadcast the traffic at a busy intersection suddenly began moving, focusing on, as reported by the University of Alabama's The Crimson White, "college-age women's breasts and buttocks as they walked down the street."

"That was definitely my favorite story of surveillance abuse," Bill told his tour, smiling. "The next day I wrote them an email, thanking them, because they'd proved that no one could ever call me paranoid again."

(Written by Alex Carp and published in the 10 October 2003 issue of The College Hill Independent.)

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