In Manhattan, on Sunday mornings, a small group of people take a guided tour that uncovers the many hidden video surveillance cameras that fill New York City: 300 in Times Square alone, 7200 in all of Manhattan. The tour guide, fortified by hand-drawn maps, is Bill Brown, fierce hunter of electronic eyes and member of the activist group, Surveillance Camera Players.
The mission of Brown and his companions is the defense of privacy and associated freedoms, which are threatened by the invasive and persistent presence of hidden, government-operated cameras at street intersections, stores, and public buildings -- "Little Brothers" that systematically record people's movements and identities, but aren't effective as security systems. The activists in the SCP point out that, in most cases, the cameras are not marked, and thus neither deter nor dissuade criminals, which is what happened in the recent case in which the Swedish minister Anna Lindh was murdered. The camera didn't prevent the crime from taking place.
If the arguments presented by the SCP are not new, the way the group protests certainly is. Brown and associates use the very technology they are fighting against, transforming the electronic watchers into audiences for theatrical performances. So far, they have written and performed in front of various Little Brothers a total of 15 different street plays that make light of the cameras and the people controlling them.
One of their most successful plays, created to denounce the presence of secret cameras at churches, is entitled "God's Eyes Here on Earth," in which the performers, after showing placards that ask "Why are there video cameras at the church? Doesn't God see everything?" then prostrate themselves in front of the cameras in prayer.
This and other SCP plays have been performed in many other countries: France, Austria, Sweden, England (where a performance was organized on 11 October in Leeds), and Italy. Bill Brown has been to Bologna in 2001 and this past year, in order to perform in front of the privacy-destroying cameras and to give support to the Italian branch of the SCP.
Despite the strong and continuing interest in the group in Europe, the protests made by Brown and his companions have not yet succeeded. More than ever, the problem is that emerging new technologies are creating the growth in video surveillance. More and more cameras, originally developed by the military but now used in civilian society, have digital zoom capabilities that can greatly magnify images without making them blurry or illegible. Moreover, the arrival in New York of five new wireless cameras is widening the borders of video surveillance in a manner previously unthinkable: these wireless cameras can send images in real time, via radio waves or satellite transmissions, to a computer that can analyze the images and decide whether or not its appropriate to call [human] police forces to the scene.
A first step in this direction, the SCP explains, is the "Terrorism Information Program" (formerly called the "Total Information Awareness Project"), a system that can use a combination of digital video, biometric and radar systems to constantly watch and analyze the movements of people in the streets of American cities.
(Written by Francesca Reboli and published in the 16 October 2003 issue of Il Expresso. Translated from the Italian by an Internet robot and carefully checked by a hooman being.)
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998