Watching Big Brother

Fed up with being caught on CCTV? Turn the tables - and watch the watchers

Leave home, take out some cash from the ATM, catch a train, walk to work: a network of CCTV cameras capture your every move. That this reduces crime has become such an accepted notion that few people question the fact that we have become a nation watched by people we don't know, as the majority of us go around our lawful business.

"I think it's a signifcant infringement [of privacy] and all of the evidence is that there's no signifcant impact on crime by the installing of CCTV," NSW Privacy Commissioner Chris Puplick said recently, who called it "security on the cheap." Installing a new CCTV camera now costs just $300.

At debate is whether CCTVs deter crime or merely displace it away from sight. Townsville Council in Queensland has seen a 70 per cent drop in crime in its nightclub district since the introduction of CCTV two years ago. "If people are doing the right thing they have nothing to fear," Townsville Councillor Jack Wilson says. "I know it rings a little bit of Big Brother, but I don't think there's any turning back."

Manhattan resident Bill Brown would care to disagree. Since November 1996 he's been running a bizarre art guerilla-cum-protest group called the Surveillance Camera Players who stage avant-garde skits to draw attention to unmarked CCTV cameras. They either perform two-minute adaptations of texts, like Edgar Allen [sic] Poe's The Raven or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or hold up placards to the cameras saying "Mind your own business." The most recent was an original work by Brown called "What are you doing out in public?" The boards proclaimed "Just going to work", "Going shopping" and "Going home now."

Brown estimates around 40 people have performed with him since the SCP group began. They always stay within the law; they're not there to cause damage, but to draw attention to what they see as a violation of the US constitution's guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.

Brown's ideas are starting to catch on worldwide. Protest groups against the spread of CCTV have sprung up in Belgium, France, Germany, England and elsewhere in the States. So if you see a small group of people in the middle of an Australian city performing an abridged version of The Castle, you'll know why.

[Written by Mark White and printed in the June/July 2001 issue of HQ, which is published in Sydney, Australia.]

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NY Surveillance Camera Players