Reflections on surveillance after the disaster

Normally, an article such as this would have started out with the initiative of 7 September 2001, in which the members of the group "Surveillance Camera Players" (SCP) denounced the proliferation of surveillance cameras. The events that took place just four days later forced me to reformulate the approach of this article, although the general context remains the same: on the one side, the [security of the ] City of New York and the rest of the world, and, on the other, an open debate about the benefits and deleterious effects of surveillance technology.

This article will focus on very specific aspects of this technology, which has generated an intense debate, while the accompaning text will tell the formidable story of the people who were rescued from the wreckage of the World Trade Center because they had mobile cell phones with them.

Our story concerns the proliferation and use of video surveillance cameras in the public places. It begins -- to give it a neat point of beginning -- in 1999, when Howard Safir, then New York City's police commissioner, said, "Only someone completely distrustful of all government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras." He could hardly have imagined how much criticism as well as praise his remark would receive, especially over the course of those four days in September. The motto of the SCP, which on principle relies upon non-violent means to protest against the impunity with which surveillance cameras are installed all over the world, is "[We are] completely distrustful of all government."

An example of the group's disagreement with Safir was the artistic demonstration that took place on 7 September 2001. Motivated to action by what they see as the threat posed to human privacy rights by surveillance cameras installed in public places, the group [and similar groups] appeared directly in front of public webcams in six different countries, including New York. The idea of the protest was to act against the cameras that surveill public space by using these same cameras for purposes other than those for which they were installed.

In the aftermath of the events at New York and the Pentagon, the group's protest was pushed into the background. Now that the enemy has struck home, it is very likely that the enormous sums of money being given to the military will mean more surveillance (both audio and visual). Despite the protests of groups such as the SCP, the attacks of 11 September have legitimated the [power of the] American government and [certain] private companies, which means that they will be able to violate the liberties of ordinary citizens with even greater impunity [...]

[Written by Jordi Bernat and published in the 18 September 2001 issue of Enrendando. Translated from the Spanish by an Internet robot and checked by a hooman being.]

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