Somebody's watching you in NYC

In the wake of 9/11, tourists visiting the Big Apple are coming under increased scrutiny by well-hidden security cameras, which are exposed in a new city tour.

NEW YORK -- Bill Brown heaves his shoulders into a shrug, lifts his palms upward and, tilting his gaze to a well-disguised overhead security camera, echoes Robert De Niro in the movie Taxi Driver: "You lookin' at me?" That, says Brown, is how New Yorkers would respond to the camera -- and thousands more like it on city streets -- if they knew the devices were watching them. Since November 2000, Brown -- who is a freelance legal proofreader and an occasional speaker on privacy issues -- has spent his Sundays drawing attention to the proliferation and dangers of public surveillance by leading free Surveillance Camera Walking Tours of eight city neighbourhoods. By his estimate, more than 10,000 remote eyes now monitor Manhattan streets, a three-fold increase since the New York Civil Liberties Union first mapped the cameras in 1998. After Sept. 11, 2001, Brown says, "they've multiplied like mushrooms after a spring rain."

On a damp Sunday, a hardy group of about 10 people has gathered for Brown's tour of Times Square, an area under heavy surveillance, with about 260 cameras. (In good weather, the informal tour attracts a crowd of 20 New Yorkers and visitors -- a motley mix of activists, artists, students, journalists and the curious.) Brown hands out maps of the area's public cameras and, above the blare of midtown traffic, launches into a rap that has passers-by pausing to listen.

"Above us," says Brown, pointing to a globe-shaped fixture attached to a streetlight, "is a strange-looking device that's designed to resemble a lamp." He identifies it as a police-operated video camera that can see 360 degrees, up to a mile away, and has a magnification factor of 16. "It can read the title of the book you're reading." From where we're standing, we are also in the sights of two Web cams and another pair of globes, tiny blips in the neon jungle of billboards and marquees. Brown discounts the efficacy of video surveillance in curbing crime or terrorism. "There were so many cameras on the World Trade Center," he tells us, "I couldn't map them." And there's a huge potential for abuse. "The man monitoring that camera might be looking down your blouse."

With the panache of an enthusiastic college lecturer, Brown introduces various examples of surveillance-camera technology as we pass them. Many were first developed for military use. "This camera could have been on Fort Bragg," he quips, pointing out an old, boxy CCTV model. "It would be nice to do some carbon dating." Outside an innocuous-looking office tower with cameras protruding from its walls, Brown says, "This building is defending its perimeter. It suggests the militarization of civilian society." At 43rd Street, we reach a new "smart building," whose architecture integrates digital video surveillance on all four sides. "This is what the future looks like," he says. Two weeks ago, Brown adds, building security guards confronted him when he stopped to film the site with an Austrian TV crew. The people monitoring the cameras, he points out, don't like to be watched watching.

Brown finds the secret nature of New York's public surveillance particularly onerous. He claims that, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, the police and private entities have denied operating any cameras. "That makes this ugly upside-down little mushroom an orphan. Nobody owns it," jokes Brown, pointing at a globe keeping surveillance over the sidewalk where a man is selling "the world's greatest pickup lines" for $1 each. "People walking in urban space don't look up," Brown continues. "We're looking at what or who we need to step over." That, combined with the increasing sophistication of surveillance technology, allows law enforcement and business to invade our privacy without our knowledge or consent -- and informed consent, he reminds us, is an integral part of the democratic process. "Surveillance culture thrives on secrecy," he says. "If you talk about it, you've damaged it where it counts."

We're at a critical juncture, Brown adds. One day, we might see a networking of private and public cameras to create an electronic police state that uses biometric technology to match our images against a databank of individuals. Given that the technology is only as smart as the person using it, that's an especially scary thought, Brown says. Quoting Frank Zappa's "stupidity is the norm of the universe," he takes us around the back of the Times Square police headquarters to see one of the few signs marking the use of "surveilance." "They can't even spell it right," he says indignantly.

(Written by Barbara Aria and published 21 June 2003 as a special to The Toronto Globe and Mail.)

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