Ubiquitous Surveillance:

The Mayor's New Clothes

Ever since his inauguration in the wake of the September 11th attacks, New York City's Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, has dressed himself up as someone preoccupied with "keeping the people of New York safe." And so it isn't quite accurate to say that he has, just now, been revealed to be naked. But during and since his recent trip to London, where he was given a tour of that city's immense number of surveillance cameras, Bloomberg has become an even more self-assured and vocal advocate for the widespread use of police surveillance cameras in public places.

"We are way behind [London] and we really do have to catch up," he said in remarks quoted by The Daily News (2 October 2007). He also said: "In this day and age, if you don't think that cameras are watching you all the time, you are very naive [...] We are under surveillance all the time [...] We live in a dangerous world, and people want to have security cameras [...] There are some people who don't like the cameras, but the alternatives are so much worse [...] It's ridiculous, people who object to using technology" (The New York Post, 2 October 2007).

This last remark was reported slightly differently by The Daily News (3 October 2007): "It's just ridiculous people who object to using technology." What is "ridiculous": the objection to "using technology" or the people who make this objection? It hardly matters. Either way, the Mayor's attitude -- self-assurance verging on arrogance; know-it-all dismissiveness verging on contempt -- hardly suits his "trust us" mantra. He knows what's best for all of us. "We live in a dangerous world, and today we just have to use technology to do everything we can to reduce the chances of a terrorist attack, and if there is one, catch the perpetrators," he was quoted as saying (The Daily News, 3 October 2007). "You don't want to wait until 52 people are killed here and then say, 'Oh, now it's time to do it.' The trick is to learn by experience, but it's other people's experiences you'd like to learn by."

As in the famous short story by Hans Christian Anderson, only a child (even a child?) could easily demolish these transparently foolish arguments. After 10 years of spending approximately $400 million (that's three-quarters of its federal "anti-crime" budget), London has over 10,000 surveillance cameras. And yet, on 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers either eluded or completely ignored all of those cameras and succeeded in detonating bombs that killed 52 people and injured hundreds more. It was cold comfort that the London authorities were later able to produce pictures of these cold-hearted killers. Wasn't the whole point of blanketing London with cameras to deter these types of attacks? Indeed it was, but surveillance cameras are useless in deterring suicide bombers, and -- to the extent that they capture, preserve and are later used to broadcast images of these suicide missions -- surveillance cameras fit right into the plans of suicide bombers, many of whose families are awarded funds or honors for the martyrdom of their loved ones, and thus need documentation.

It gets worse. Not only have London's surveillance cameras (and the millions of other cameras installed in public places all over England) failed as anti-terrorism deterrents, they have also failed as anti-crime tools. As PC World reported on 21 September 2007, despite their presence, there is a great deal of street crime in London (much more than in New York City) and only one in five of these crimes is ever solved.

In 2005, the British government itself (in the form of the Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate) concluded in its official report, Assessing the Impact of CCTV,[1] that "the CCTV schemes that have been assessed had little overall effect on crime levels [...] CCTV is an ineffective tool if the aim is to reduce overall crime rates and make people feel safer. The CCTV systems installed in 14 areas mostly failed to reduce crime (with a single exception), mostly failed to allay public fear of crime (with three exceptions) and the vast majority of specific aims set for the various CCTV schemes were not achieved."

There's more. Not only are the cameras ineffective as crime deterrents or crime-investigation tools, they are themselves all-too-frequently illegal. According to The Register (1 October 2007), nearly all -- a staggering 95% -- of England's cameras are not in conformity with the legal requirements of England's "Data Protection Act," which requires that each camera is accompanied by a sign (that increases the deterrent effect) and is registered with and licensed by the Information Commissioner (these requirements decrease the possible use by organized crime or terrorist groups, reassure the public that the cameras are being watched by people who have been properly screened and trained, and raise money for the government).

Here's the coup de grace. According to the European Commission, England's "Data Protection Act" is itself a deeply flawed document: even if it were properly enforced, it would still contravene or be at variance with eleven provisions (that's one-third of the total number of provisions) in the European Union's "Data Protection Directive" (95/46/EC), with which England has had more than 10 years to become compliant.

And yet Mayor Bloomberg, despite this utter bullshit about "learning from other people's experiences," is allowing the city's various police forces (not just the NYPD, but also the MTA police department) to install a large and ever-growing number of surveillance cameras in public places: in MTA buses (122 buses so far, with 278 more to come); in the subways (1,600 cameras in 70 stations so far, with 2,000 more cameras in 70 additional stations to come); and on the streets of "Lower Manhattan," that is, everything below Canal Street (17 cameras so far, with almost 1,000 to come, plus access to the feeds from approximately 2,000 cameras that are or will be installed by private companies).

Mind you, all these new cameras are in addition to the 1,000 cameras that have existed in the New York City Housing Authority's buildings since 1997; the 1,000 cameras that the Department of Transportation has used on public streets since 1999; the 1,000 cameras that the MTA Police have used on top of and inside the city's various bridges and tunnels; and the untold numbers of cameras in the various helicopters (NYPD), spy planes (FBI, Air National Guard) and satellites (Department of Defense) that patrol, surveill and photograph New York from aerospace.

A great deal differentiates the new cameras from the old ones. Unlike the old ones, the new ones are being funded by huge grants from the Department of Homeland Security; the new ones will feed into a single centralized "watcher's booth"; and the feeds from the new ones will be run through sophisticated computer programs, certainly license-plate readers (as in London) and potentially face recognition software, as well. The "corporate" partners in the construction of a massive and intensive surveillance system in New York City are among the biggest defense contractors in the world: Northrup Grumman and NICE (the "Lower Manhattan Security Initiative"), and Lockheed Martin (the subways).

And so this isn't simply a matter of the increasing surveillance of the people of New York (none of whom have voted for or even been asked about this intensive push), but also the militarization of American society. Here we speak quite literally: the surveillance camera is and has always been a piece of military hardware, and it operates according to military "rules of engagement" (everyone is a potential threat) rather than the principles of law enforcement (one only surveills people previously identified as "suspects" and under careful judicial oversight). Given the close relationship between America and England -- at the local level (surveillance cameras aimed at everyone) as well as at the global level (their "alliance" against "terrorism" in Iraq and Afghanistan) -- one might even refer here to the militarization of the entire Anglo-American world.

It is a mistake (at least a partial one) to think that the Anglo-American world is arming and surveilling itself to fight against "Islamic extremists." As Harold Meyerson recently pointed out in "China's Hot Stock: Orwell, Inc." -- an extraordinary article published in The Washington Post (19 September 2007) -- the Chinese government has installed even more police surveillance cameras in public places than its British counterpart has (there are 260,000 such cameras in Beijing alone); and, through Chinese companies incorporated in the United States, the Chinese government has received hundreds of millions of dollars in investments from Wall Street hedge funds. Meyerson notes: "Some Wall Street executives have even defended their investments by equating the Chinese surveillance system with the surveillance cameras of London and New York."

On one level, there is a huge and apparently irreconcilable difference between China, on the one hand, and the USA/UK alliance, on the other: the former is anti-democratic, while the latter is pro-democratic. But Meyerson points his readers to a level on which there is no real difference between the two: both are capitalist; one practices "Leninist capitalism," while the other practices "democratic capitalism." In both, surveillance (or, if you will, the militarization of society) is both good business and big business.[2]

And so, Meyerson writes, "America must disenthrall itself from one of its most cherished myths: that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand, that the spread of markets inevitably means the coming of democracy." Unfortunately for his readers, Meyerson's sense of the significance of this realization is limited: "If it comes down to a choice in the Bush White House between capitalism and democracy, or even capitalism and our national interest, the smart money's on capitalism" (emphasis added). As everyone knows, NYC Mayor Bloomberg is not a pro-Bush Republican; as a matter of fact, this former Democrat, who became a Republican to run for mayor, has once again changed his registration and is now an Independent. As for Bloomberg's new friend, London's Mayor Ken Livingston: he's been known as "Red Ken" for years because of his Leftist political sympathies. And so, we must be clear on the fact that it isn't just George W. Bush who is busily cashiering democracy in favor of capitalism: it's the Democrats and Independents as well.

If we are really to form an effective anti-surveillance (that is, pro-privacy) movement -- either here in New York City, in London or in Beijing -- that movement must also be anti-capitalist and, of course, pro-democracy (direct democracy, not its "representative" simulation).

Surveillance Camera Players
New York City
6 October 2007

[1] "CCTV" stands for "closed circuit television." Though surveillance systems can use both "closed" (hard-wired) or "open" (wireless) circuits, CCTV is a phrase that is used to refer to all video surveillance systems.

[2] For more on the global integration of "Communist" and "democratic" societies, see Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle.

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