The eyes have it - for now

As surveillance cameras proliferate, a band of skeptics is questioning the social impact of all this watching.

NEW YORK -- Standing on a traffic island in the middle of Times Square, Bill Brown might as well be on stage. TV cameras sweep the street to film lead-ins for news shows; security cameras protect store entrances; Web cameras focus out on the street so tourists can wave to friends and family back home via the Internet. Since the devices are often hidden or disguised, it takes several seconds for his small tour group to pick them out.

On a suspected police camera that hangs overhead, Mr. Brown slaps on a "You are being watched" sticker and defiantly reads the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution: "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. . . ."

Score a small and purely symbolic victory for one of the biggest underdog movements in America. Even as homeowners gleefully wire up their homes with inexpensive Web cams, even as employers put up closed-circuit TV and cities install surveillance equipment on everything from traffic intersections to school buses, a small group of skeptics is beginning to question the effects of all this technology. Of course, after recent terrorist attacks and sniper shootings, those leading the backlash risk being drowned out by catcalls from an edgy public. On the other hand, they're tapping into deep pools of public suspicion about surveillance [...]

No one knows how many surveillance cameras sweep public space in the United States, but experts agree the number is rising. Sales of closed-circuit TV systems grew faster last year than those of any other electronic security product, according to a dealer survey by Security Sales & Integration magazine in Torrance, Calif. Here in Times Square, perhaps the nation's most monitored public area, the number of cameras has more than tripled in four years, according to Brown, to 258 from 75 [...]

"They are indiscriminately surveilling people," says Brown, who besides counting cameras and giving surveillance tours also directs the New York Surveillance Camera Players. Since 1996, the group has staged various plays in front of surveillance cameras. Sometimes the actors exorcise the technology; sometimes they pray to it, all to raise the issue in a kind of dramatic protest.

Will the US follow in Britain's footsteps? As wired as this country is, it has nowhere near Britain's ratio of cameras to people. With less than one-quarter of America's population, Britain has an estimated 1.5 million surveillance cameras (some reports suggest 2.5 million or more). But anti-surveillance activists are also realists.

"I can get the subject on the mainstream political agenda, but that's about it," says Brown. "In 50 years I would hope that the movement I am building has won," he adds. If it doesn't, "I fear that New York in 50 years would become a dystopia in a sci-fi way."

(Written by Laurent Belsie and published in the 7 November 2002 issue of the Christian Science Monitor.)

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