The Surveillance Camera Players are not your usual theatre group. Rather than bother with camera crews, make up and superstar tantrums they perform their work in front of street spy-cams. It's theatre with a point to make and Megan Rowling points with them...
It's a sunny Friday evening in central London. Three women and a man meet outside Tottenham Court Road tube and then head off down Oxford Street. They're dressed mainly in black and carrying large white boards. In a line, they weave through the blanket of weary shoppers and office workers, attracting bemused glances. Suddenly, they start pointing. A few people look up to see what they're trying to draw attention to. It's a surveillance camera. And then the boards spring into action.
Silently displayed for the benefit of those monitoring the screens, as well as passers-by: THE SURVEILLANCE CAMERA PLAYERS PRESENT . . . IT'S OK, OFFICER; GOING SHOPPING; GETTING SOMETHING TO EAT; ON YOUR [sic] WAY HOME. The messages are reinforced by drawings of stick people being watched by cameras.
The group members salute or wave to the camera and move on to the next one, positioned just a few metres away. Covering the whole of Oxford Street takes a good couple of hours. People stop to watch. Whole busloads of passengers crane to read what's written on the boards. Mostly, they start smiling. They nudge their mates. Some get close and ask what's going on. They get leaflets explaining who the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) are, and why they're here. They've travelled all the way from New York to help alert us Brits to the fact that we're one of the most highly surveilled nations in the world - at least 1 million cameras watching 60 million people. The group protests against the use of cameras in public places because, its members believe, they violate our privacy. But, unusually, they do it by performing theatre. This is street entertainment, with a twist.
"It's OK, Officer" is just one play in the SCP's repertoire. A couple of nights before, at an internet TV station, I watch them perform an adapted version of "God's Eyes Here on Earth". This play is usually done in front of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras monitoring church property, and involves the actors praying and making other worshipping gestures, as well as holding up boards. There's another play called "Headline News", in which the board entitled "World News" shows a missile emblazoned with the word NATO and that for "National News" a gun. Nothing too subtle.
The SCP members admit their plays have become simpler since they first started out in 1996. Back then, they focused on creating made-for-CCTV versions of avant-garde plays, such as Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. But a 1998 adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 was their last piece based on a literary work. "We didn't want the plays to be misunderstood, and we wanted to make them more transparent. As a result, they became more DIY, more amateur," explains Bill Brown, co-founder of the group. The shift heralded the group's decision to perform more for the benefit of members of the public who stop to watch their plays in the street or the subway and less for those monitoring the screens. These days, audiences are welcome to participate: when the group was in Manchester, for example, a bunch of kids decided to ride round on their bikes searching out cameras for the next performance.
Susan Hull, another co-founder, says she believes the group's work has helped raise public awareness of surveillance, "Regular, everyday people take notice - and we even seem to be making a difference with older people." Fellow performer Miranda Edison points out that it's difficult to measure the impact on the spot, because people are likely to go home and talk about the issues later. "Even we don't know the forces we're unleashing sometimes," laughs Bill. "We're not concerned with short-term gains. We want to change consciousness."
Certainly, on Oxford Street, they seem to be having some success. There's lots of reaction from bystanders - most of it positive. People read the leaflets and chat about CCTV. Someone shouts out "Bravo!" A young lad joins in with the pointing, while his mates cheer him on. An older man waves at the camera. Here on this mega-conveyor belt of consumerism, it feels like a collective two-fingered salute to the huge retailers gobbling up cash and the massive monitoring system employed to make sure their shareholders don't miss out on a single penny. Even the security guards stationed at shop entrances have a giggle.
I ask people whether they realised there were so many cameras on Oxford Street. Most say no. That's probably because lots of them are incognito: some are camouflaged as street lights - a white dome hanging from an ornate black support, and then there are the silver disco balls glued to the underside of department store entrances. The group notices that two cameras actively swivel round to zoom in on their performance and then follow them as they walk away. Big Brother is most definitely watching the Surveillance Camera Players and they're delighted. American cameras, it seems, are less brazen about giving them the eye.
"I'm normally dead against the cameras, but something really weird just happened to me," confides a young man in his twenties, who's stopped to watch. "I was in Burger King, and this bloke offered to sell me tickets to a gig. So I handed over 45 pounds, and he disappeared off to the loo. He didn't come back, so I asked the people working behind the counter if they could do anything, and they gave me the tape from their CCTV camera. I've just taken it to the police - I hope they can catch him." A good example perhaps of how the cameras can come in handy. But civil rights campaigners distinguish between cameras that operate on private property and those that monitor public spaces. There isn't enough evidence, they argue, that the cameras on our streets and in our parks prevent and reduce crime enough to justify their potential infringement of our privacy.
For starters, they don't always work very well. There's a risk that if the cameras aren't maintained and operated properly, they'll record poor-quality images. When a bomb exploded outside BBC Television Centre in West London earlier this year, the cameras watching the area were reportedly so dirty that the pictures couldn't be used to identify suspects. Shortly afterwards, the Metropolitan Police launched a publicity campaign: the ads consisted of a dark, blurred image with the words "This CCTV wasn't working. This terrorist still is." On its website, the Met's Anti-Terrorist Branch claims that CCTV has been "particularly useful in the fight against terrorism", citing its role in tracking down nail-bomber David Copeland. It also asserts that the cameras are "a proven deterrent against other forms of crime". But are they? When I asked the Home Office whether they knew of any statistics backing this up, I was pointed in the direction of a 1999 paper which "confirms that CCTV can be effective in deterring property crime, but that the position is less clear in other cases, such as crime against the person, public order offences and the fear of crime". So that's alright then.
Professor Jason Ditton of the Scottish Centre for Criminology has carried out one of the few empirical studies on CCTV in the UK. He researched the effect of surveillance cameras in the centre of Glasgow, and his report concluded that, "the installation of city centre CCTV cameras could not be said to have had a significant impact overall in reducing recorded crimes and offences." Statistics from before and after the installation of the Glasgow cameras in November 1994 showed that some offences observable by the cameras decreased. But overall, crime did not fall any more than in the control areas where there were no cameras. The crime clear-up rate, when adjusted for general trends, actually dropped by 4 percent to 60 percent.
Ditton also looked at the small Scottish town of Airdrie. There, he found a 20 percent drop in crime in the two years following the installation of cameras. But that, he explains, was mainly because the system was specifically intended to stop kids from the local youth club nicking stuff from a nearby shop. The cameras were positioned to record who was going in and out of the club, and the kids were aware of them. In circumstances like this, it's often argued that crimes are probably still being committed - just not in front of the cameras anymore. "Looking at straightforward empirical studies [on CCTV and crime prevention], there's no convincing evidence either way," says Ditton.
There's also the contradictory effect of surveillance: the general public is told that CCTV is an effective way of preventing and reducing crime, but if it leads to more incidents being spotted, then crime levels may actually increase. Confusing. The government has now decided it needs more comprehensive statistics, and has launched a two-year study to evaluate "the impact of CCTV on crime, disorder and fear of crime". You may well wonder why this wasn't done before the Home Office committed 153 million pounds to its phased CCTV initiative and Professor Ditton agrees: "It's scandalous that, in one year, 80 percent of the crime prevention budget was spent on an untested system. . . . Nobody thought these things through. The growth of CCTV has been driven by industry pressure to sell cameras. Before long, the whole country will be wired up and it will be treated as the next 'utility' - something we take for granted. That's how it'll go, but whether we want it is another matter."
Do we want it? Well, it depends on how you ask the question. When Ditton's researchers asked people about the acceptability of the cameras - relating the question directly to safety - 95 percent said they were in favour. But when the question was linked to civil liberties, the figure dropped to 50 percent. Trailing the SCP down Oxford Street, I conducted my own straw poll. The majority said they didn't mind the cameras because they thought they were there to prevent crime; far fewer said they did because of privacy issues. Most people, it seemed, hadn't actually given the issue much thought - suggesting a lack of public debate. The widely reported role of CCTV in identifying the killers of Jamie Bulger and a small number of other high-profile cases seem to have reassured most of us it's worth it.
It wasn't until July last year that the government introduced a legally enforceable "code of conduct", which regulates CCTV under the Data Protection Act. The code applies to systems that operate in areas where there is public access, and sets out what operators must do to collect and process images in adherence with the data protection principles. It also gives guidance on individuals' rights to procure CCTV footage of themselves, and to claim compensation when the regulations are abused. One of the aims is to prevent operators abusing privacy rights, which could happen, for example, if they sold tapes to be used for entertainment purposes. John Wallis, compliance officer at the Office of the Information Commissioner, told me that no research has yet been carried out on the impact of the code, but there has been "positive feedback". He believes the code is increasing awareness of peoples' rights relating to CCTV, noting that more members of the public are now requesting footage.
Civil rights campaigners take a dimmer view. Simon Davies of watchdog Privacy International argues that the code "has no value" because "it allows you to collect images at will". He's more worried by the fact that the current regulations have no power to limit the knot-weed-style spread of CCTV. And he plans to do something about it. Together with other human rights organisations, Privacy International intends to bring legal test cases under the Human Rights Act, possibly as early as the autumn. Davies hopes that these will prove CCTV to be in breach of Article 8, which states: "Everyone has the right to respect for private and family life, his home and his correspondence". The exemptions allowing public authorities to interfere with this right include when it is necessary to do so "for the prevention of disorder or crime" - which would be the most likely legal defence for CCTV operating in public spaces. Davies believes this can be challenged because there's insufficient evidence that CCTV is an effective method of crime prevention.
In fact, a major aim of civil rights organisations is to stop the government increasing surveillance of the population for purposes other than the prevention of crime. For example, the use of CCTV to monitor political demonstrators is on the rise. And there are growing fears about the development of semi-automated profiling systems, which could use face recognition software to 'match' CCTV images with digital passport photos and other information held on police and government databases. All sound a bit too Big Brother? Dr. Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong of the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hull University warned in a report entitled "The Unforgiving Eye: CCTV Surveillance in Public Space" that CCTV operators see its future purpose as "an instrument of social control and the production of discipline; the production of 'anticipatory conformity'; the certainty of rapid deployment to observed deviance and; the compilation of individualised dossiers of the monitored population". Scary.
This study also revealed that camera watchers targeted young and black people, as well as males, "systematically and disproportionately . . . not because of their involvement in crime or disorder, but for no obvious reason". Homeless people were also closely watched, and one in ten women were scrutinised for "voyeuristic" reasons by male operators. Other targets included "anyone who directly challenged, by gesture or deed, the right of the cameras to monitor them". Exactly as SCP members discovered during their UK tour. But, over the years, the SCP has learned to turn the attention of Big Brother to its advantage. I saw a couple of videos of performances back in the US, mainly in the subway, where the police arrived on the scene to give the performers a hard time. Even in the face of verbal and physical intimidation, it was a case of the show must go on. "It's just another act in the play. We try to bring them in, rather than bringing the curtain down," explains Bill.
The SCP may be an anarchist group, but it isn't against the police. "Surveillance cameras are taking their jobs away," says Susan, "we'd rather see them doing the work." The group is far more concerned about the interest the US military takes in its activities. The SCP website boasts an impressive list of the military organisations that have visited its pages, stretching from the Air Force to the Navy and the Defense Information Systems Agency. Bill is convinced the visits happen as part of official duties, and not because some bored soldier happens to be surfing the web. The nature of the hits - most of which involve only one page view - suggests they are generated by automated "sniffer" programmes. These are used to extract information about who is hosting and posting information to a site, rather than what it actually contains.
We speculate about how the security services might 'use and abuse' surveillance cameras in the future. Bill believes that the global surveillance system known as Echelon, which is operated by the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, could be hooked up to local surveillance cameras once technology allows. The introduction of digital cameras that can be operated and monitored remotely through wireless technology will certainly facilitate this kind of advanced, covert surveillance. And here in the UK, the government has already approved the use of wireless, or Open-Circuit TV, as it's known.
Then Susan tells me about Cypher, an "unmanned aerial vehicle" that's being developed for the US Army by Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation. It looks like a UFO, with a camera perched on top of an enclosed rotary-blade system that allows it to fly. It can take off, land, hover and navigate "autonomously", though there's room for a pilot too. Military officials say it could be used in a hostage situation to work out the location of people within a building, as well as to survey enemy territory and areas that have been attacked by poisonous gas or bombs. But because it can track human targets and carry and drop a payload, it could also be used to 'control' crowds. In a recent test flight, the machine was flown above a crowd of cardboard dummies before releasing simulated tear gas - demonstrators beware. Bill agrees that developments like these mean the SCP has its work cut out: "The future of our group is unlimited. It would be nice to know there was an endpoint. But there's so much money going into surveillance technology that the SCP may have to continue forever." He's only half-joking.
[Written by Megan Rowling and published in the 17 July 2001 issue of Mao Magazine.]
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998