They're watching you

On the fourth anniversary of 9/11, the world not only recalls the carnage, it also finds itself face to face with the social and technological changes that the terrorist attacks began. The biggest of these -- arguably more important than any military issue -- is surveillance. Whoever you are, wherever you are, at any given moment some friend or foe may be watching you. That's today's reality.

We take some surveillance for granted. Airplanes and satellites with remote-sensing equipment constantly fly over Canada to monitor pollutants and illegal fishing, enforce Arctic sovereignty and inspect our territory for the movement of illegal goods. Yet the main target of Big Brother is not acreage, but people. Personal surveillance is of two kinds, public and private. Public surveillance covers people and organizations that the state deems to be a real or potential danger. Private surveillance covers threats that an individual fears. Although public surveillance has many times the scope of private surveillance, the two realms' technologies constantly overlap: The same devices may entrap the frisky husband and the errant embassy official. Both spies and private detectives may use infrared cameras to show the incontrovertible heat signature of a companion lurking in a bed somebody swears he occupied alone all night. That image can be seen even if Mr. or Ms. X left the premises several hours ago [...]

The science and technology of surveillance extends beyond electronics and nanotech to sociology. For example, surveillance has spawned a low-level popular response called "sousveillance," whose self-assigned role is to "out the cams." In Manhattan, a cheerful group of anarchists called the NYSCP (New York Surveillance Camera Players) detects hidden eyes on sign poles and light standards, then mugs before them in an attempt to embarrass their human monitors. Unfortunately, this may defeat the NYSCP's aim of discombobulating the human component of surveillance: Anything that relieves the tedium of staring at monitors probably pleases the watcher.

The group feels impelled to its performance art because, surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union has no objection to surveillance cameras in public places. "It is unreasonable to expect privacy in community locales," the ACLU says. It's an interesting argument. Jane Jacobs, the world-famous urban scientist who makes Toronto her home, defines a safe city as "one that has eyes on the street." In other words, a watched area is a safe area. And what difference is there between a neighbour's eyes and a video camera? In terms of human rights, might people's right to safety trump their right to privacy?

NYSCP's members consider the ACLU a toothless watchdog of civil liberties, and they and other private individuals persist in making their point [...]

(Written by William Illsey Atkinson, They're watching you The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, September 13, 2005.

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998