The camera eye follows, but now you can stare back

They're watching you. Now, with the help of privacy advocates in New York and in Washington, D.C., you can watch them too.

Surveillance cameras have been observing New York City dwellers for years as part of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's tough crime-fighting tactics, and since Sept. 11, cameras have also popped up in Washington - which has left some people in both cities feeling safer and some feeling violated.

"They look like ornaments or street lights," said Bill Brown, the director of Surveillance Camera Players, whose Web site has mapped more than 5,000 cameras in New York since 2000.

"The people you would think have maps [of the camera locations] - city council, local community boards, the mayor's office - either don't have them or aren't making them available," he said. "That leaves it up to individuals like me."

Brown also gives weekly walking tours, scheduled on his site, throughout Manhattan - in Times Square, Chelsea, Fifth Avenue and the United Nations - in neighborhoods, he says, that are least likely to need them. He says he doesn't believe cameras have been placed in these neighborhoods, which currently have lower crime rates than poorer communities, to deter crime.

After retracing New York Civil Liberties Union's count of 2,397 [sic] cameras in 1998, and adding his own, Brown discovered very few cameras in poor neighborhoods.

"If one believes that surveillance cameras are installed to prevent crime then one would expect that they are mostly installed in high crime areas," he said, adding that the cameras should be labeled to discourage crooks. He says it might deter someone from doing a crime if they knew they were being watched.

Of Brown's count about 15 percent of the surveillance cameras are owned by police, while the others are privately owned and used mostly for collecting insurance money after property crimes, he says.

Besides the walking tours, Brown has set up Surveillance Camera Theater, a performance art project he has helped spread internationally via his Web site. The concept is to perform either original works or adaptations of other people's plays in front of the street monitors.

Since the cameras do not record sound, signs are held up in front of them to "educate" passersby and to let the watchers know they've been exposed. In a play called "It's OK," Players hold up signs reading "It's OK officer. Just going to work."

Brown said a lot of traffic came to his site by mistake on Sept. 11 through search engines looking for Manhattan Web cams. This was also a time of a lot of hate mail to his site by people in favor of surveillance.

"You are offering information that may be of importance to the enemy and you should be watched. I recommend you take down your site and wake up!" wrote one reader. "We live in a new era and we must be realistic." [...]

(Written by By Jerome Burdi and published on 22 August 2002 by Court TV.)

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