Private Lives, Public Spaces

The Surveillance State

"You may be caught on camera ten times a day. Are you dressed for it?" -Kenneth Cole advertisement

If you liked Survivor, just imagine a new reality-based television show that captures New Yorkers in their most intimate public moments. You'd see politicians' daughters buying drugs in Tompkins Square Park, topless tanning in Central Park, and CEOs stumbling out of midtown bars after having a few too many. Why not? In a culture like ours that thrives on voyeuristic thrills, the show would no doubt be a hit. Viewers in the United Kingdom were treated to a compilation of "juicy bits" from government closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras when Barrie Goulding launched Caught in the Act. The program featured the sexual and other intimate activities of innocent people as well as lawbreakers. Great Britain, the spawning ground of reality television, has 1.5 million television cameras monitoring the public, more than any other nation, but the United States is rapidly catching up [...]

Bill Brown, founder of the privacy watchdog group The Surveillance Camera Players, gives walking tours of New York City surveillance camera locations. He estimates there are about six thousand cameras in Manhattan. He noted some of the questions, constitutional and commercial, raised by an unmarked camera. "In addition to watching the front door, it's also pointing out into public space and recording information about the passersby: Who are they with? What are they wearing? What are they smoking? Are they drinking Coca-Cola or Pepsi?" [...]

When people go out in public, especially in a large city such as New York, they expect anonymity. This is perhaps a paradox, but in a crowded street, individuals are unlikely to really be noticed. As privacy activist Bill Brown observes, "These surveillance cameras strike at the single most beautiful quality about New York, which is, quite obviously, the ability to become anonymous." Of course people realize they will be seen, and perhaps recognized by others when they step outside into public view. I do not suggest that police cannot look at what everyone else can. By stepping outside we implicitly consent to be seen and observed by others, but certainly not to be scrutinized, stalked, or recorded. When the government uses cameras to perform these functions of hyper-scrutiny, it is violating social norms and implicating Fourth Amendment protections [...]

(Written by Molly Smithsimon and published in the Winter 2003 issue of Dissent Magazine.)

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