They Are Watching

You're not Paranoid: Downtown Cameras Exposed

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. -- Benjamin Franklin, 1759 Historical Review of Pennsylvania.

As an actor, Bill Brown has performed in front of cameras all over New York City. He's done Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death and a version of George Orwell's 1984. He's also taken part in a piece called "You Are Being Watched for Your Own Safety," in which an actor holds a sign that says "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU" throughout the entire play.

Bill Brown has performed these works not on stages but in public spaces. On subway platforms and in front of banks. And everywhere he performs shares one characteristic: His performances are always in front of a camera. A surveillance camera.

He looks for the camera not just to perform--but to blow the whistle. Brown is a member of The Surveillance Camera Players, a group of New York City-based pranksters whose mission is to smoke out the ever-multiplying secret cameras watching our every move in public, and fight back. The group goes and finds the cameras, maps them, lets the world know about them on its Web site, then has some fun hogging the lens.

"Surveillance cameras did not and will never prevent a major crime or terrorist attack," the group argues. "It is clear to us that the problems--of crime, of terrorism--must be solved in other ways."

The surveillance swarm isn't confined to New York, of course. New Haven's eyes are watching everywhere, too. So a few weeks ago, I invited Brown to visit New Haven to take a stroll--and out the cameras. We found them all right, even on a short stroll. But it's just the beginning. While well-watched, we are also "under-surveilled," Brown reported. The number of private eyes scoping our every public move could more than triple just in the next few years.

I picked Brown up at the train station at an ungodly 9 a.m. I was running a couple of minutes late, and glad that I had given him a brief description of myself. As I scanned the commuters looking for someone Billesque, --a mopped top and equally unshaven guy approached me.


"Bill?" I responded. "I figured it was you 'cause you're the only guy here with skull rings." Oh yeah. I told him about the rings. Now that we were a team it was time to get all "Crocodile Hunter" and bag us some of New Haven's surveillance cameras.

Driving downtown to start the journey, I told Brown that I had already ventured out by myself scouting for cameras. On that cold-as-hell day I spotted about six. But now that I had the Sherpa of surveillance to guide my untrained eye upward, I expected to find more.

We chit-chatted a bit as we enjoyed the balmy 40-degree weather. Like Brown, I have found the ubiquitous presence of eyes watching my every move a creepy invasion of privacy. The sense that no matter what you do, you are being watched.

"There are nine [web] cameras in this one area of Times Square," Brown said. "Most are scanning the billboards and stuff. I don't mind the nine cameras. But there are two that are at eye level, and they're taping people's faces. And that's what I object to."

Soon we approached the first camera I had noticed--the one stuck on a light pole at the joining of Elm and Park in front of the Ivy Noodle restaurant.

"Hmm," Bill mumbled. "I've never seen anything like that before." He asked if it was indeed a camera.

"I dunno," I responded in investigative reporter fashion. "Does it look like one to you?"

Turns out it looked like a bunch of other black-barreled little numbers we found downtown, positioned like cameras, sometimes next to other cameras, like a set I found on an earlier jaunt on Grand Avenue by Blatchley.

Cutting down York Street and getting more coffee, we spotted another set of electro-peepers. Brown, showing dedication to the spotting and mapping process, wandered out into the street with his eyes glued to the target ... and not the traffic. This happened a few times and is now, amusingly, a habit my own body just can't shake.

We spent the next few hours serpentining the streets of downtown, drinking coffee and gabbing about the similarities between New Haven and Big Apple restaurants, or the shortest distance between two Starbucks, or the most effective way to extract the most caffeine out of coffee. Then the conversation would stop mid-sentence as Brown proclaimed, "Bingo!" to acknowledge another camera. By the end of the day, criss-crossing the downtown area and jotting down notes and locations, we spotted 40 cameras in the 35 square blocks of downtown. There were an almost equal number of "Bingo!"s.

As Brown walked the streets of New Haven, he discovered some interesting installations:

-- The four domed cameras, capable of spinning 360 degrees and with a high-zoom capability, that secure each corner of the federal courthouse on Church Street.

-- The little, black-barreled cameras on light poles that Brown hadn't seen before. They point the wrong way down one-way streets. These can be seen at Grove and York streets, at Elm and Park streets and the intersection of Orange and Elm.

-- The domed traffic surveillance camera near the Broadway-York-Elm street intersection that is equipped with a microwave transmitter and could send images to anyone, anywhere and, Brown says, is easy to hack into.

-- The domed camera perched high atop the City Hall clock tower, monitoring the front door. Brown says it's powerful enough to zoom across town and focus on anything until a building got in the way.

-- The old-school camera on the side of the building on Court and Orange that is pointed down Orange toward the military recruiting station.

Brown and a cadre of like-minded, humorous, pranky folk started the Surveillance Camera Players just over seven years ago. The group then collected itself in front of one of the many Big Apple cameras and held its first performance, of Alfred Jarry's politically charged "Ubu Roi," in the Union Square subway station on Dec. 10, 1996. Other performances included versions of 1984 at the 14th Street and 7th Avenue station, and "The Masque of the Red Death" in Jersey City, N.J., in October 2000.

The latest, according to the Surveillance Web site, was a production of "Something Interesting," a play by Art Toad: "In front of a surveillance camera installed in a public place, either a single performer or a pair of performers take turns holding up two placards: one that says 'SOMETHING INTERESTING ABOUT TO HAPPEN'; another that says 'PLEASE STAND BY.' Each placard should be held aloft for at least 15 seconds (longer if possible). The performance, i.e., the alternation of the placards, should last at least 15 minutes (longer if possible). If desired, the two basic placards can be supplemented by others bearing upon them such statements as 'PLEASE BE PATIENT, WE'LL BE RIGHT BACK,' 'ONE MOMENT PLEASE, IT'LL BE WORTH THE WAIT' and so forth."

These thespi-activists tossed it back at the humorless man and his cameras.

"It just started out as something funny, a prank," Brown told me over some Thai grub during a break in our New Haven walk. "Then it got more involved." That involvement evolved into Brown hosting walking tours of New York City in which he pointed out all the eyes in the sky in that particular area, a service he still provides every Sunday rain or shine. Taking an existing idea from the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the NYCLU took five months to walk the length of Manhattan to locate and map every surveillance camera. They found 2,397 cameras and are constantly updating their map.

So Brown tried his hand at camera topography. In order to answer the questions that people were bound to ask during these Surveillance Camera Outdoor Walking Tours (or SCOWTS ... pretty clever), Brown educated himself in cameras and surveillance. And their increasing popularity. In New Haven, he says, we can expect a dramatic increase in surveillance.

"A whopping 40 percent of the surveillance cameras in New Haven are operated by local, state or federal government authorities," he concluded. "Usually government-operated cameras account for only 10 percent of the total number of cameras in operation, with the rest operated by private companies. ... One can predict with some confidence that if and when Yale University and other private companies and corporations in New Haven start operating surveillance cameras there will 166 cameras."

Granted, we didn't catch anywhere near all of New Haven's cameras. And the cameras we did spot were not angled up into apartment windows or Big Brothering into the intimacies of the public. Many do just what they're there for: providing security. Or not.

Brown points out the following:

-- Cameras do not necessarily help law enforcement officials solve crimes. Most of the tape you see on the crime-stopper television shows feature few identifying characteristics of the criminals. Brown says he watches those shows carefully and rarely sees any mention of whether the tape was used in solving the crime. "The value of such systems is merely 'cosmetic,' he says, "something to reassure insurance companies and prospective clients."

-- Cameras record events as they are happening. No security cameras caught the attack on the World Trade Center, he notes. Even if they had, it would have been too late to prevent the catastrophe. Despite the ever-present cameras in and around Washington, D.C., surveillance technology did little in the investigation into the sniper shooting spree last fall.

-- As a deterrent, he wonders, couldn't you just buy a sign that says there are cameras?

Act Back

So the cameras are out there. It's not some whacked-out conspiracy. And some folks may not want even the legitimate cameras--such as those monitoring activity outside the FBI building--around. So, what are you gonna do? What if you don't want the unknown paparazzi snapping your profile for whatever reason?

1. Knowledge and Avoidance.

Take an Internet journey to It's an interactive map of Manhattan. Click around the streets and avenues; it will spit out the directions to your destination by means of the "path of least surveillance."

Hey. You got a map. And by knowing where the little buggers are hiding, you're already ahead of the game. So think of this map as the hands-on, low-rent New Haven version of that site.

2. Acceptance and Usage.

Hey, all you "Dell computer guy" wannabes. Here's your chance. Just sniff out one of the cameras on the accompanying map--or find your own--and simply act for the camera. Do what you're good at. If you're a singer-songwriter, pull out your acoustic and let 'er rip. Got a penchant for the more motor-skilled talents? Park yourself beneath a camera and start juggling. If the cameras are there, why not use 'em? You won't be viewed by millions on prime time, or even by the president of HBO. But you are being taped and/or someone is watching you, so have a blast.

3. On Paranoia (an excerpt from the Surveillance Camera Players' Web site.)

"Isn't it strange that paranoia is detected in the SCP ...? What about the people who have installed surveillance cameras all over New York City? If anyone is 'paranoid' here, it is surely them and not the people who object to the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras!

"The SCP has good reason for its 'paranoia,' if the group is indeed paranoid: It is an undeniable fact that the city is filled with surveillance cameras. ... [T]he installers of these cameras do not have good reason for their paranoia. As a matter of fact, New York City is not filled with drunk and disorderly persons, drug dealers, prostitutes, vandals, thieves, burglars, muggers, rapists, child molesters, murderers and terrorists. And if New York City is remarkably crime-free for a city of its size, it isn't because the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras has chased away or led to the arrest and imprisonment of all the criminals (the so-called War on Drugs took care of that). The cameras started going up in New York in 1998, years after the rate of crime plunged and stayed low.

"Not only are the camera installers truly paranoid, but they also deliberately seek to induce paranoia in other people as well. The only reason this irrational and barbaric approach to crime prevention/detection is tolerated is the fact that the camera installers say they want to induce paranoia in a single group or category of people, and that this one group, moreover, is guilty by definition and thus already deserving of punishment (the dreaded criminals, that is, the people who intend or are likely to commit a crime if the opportunity presents itself). But paranoia is not a tool and it can't be used selectively. All of us -- criminals and law-abiding citizens alike -- are made to feel "paranoid" by the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras in public places; all of us feel that the camera installers presume us guilty until proven innocent. And so, rather than increasing public security, which would seem to be the goal of all crime-fighting measures, surveillance cameras undermine it. Instead of being fearful of crime, we are fearful of crime-fighting measures. . . .

"One of the things that makes the SCP effective is the fact that the group isn't and refuses to become paranoid."

(Written by Craig Gilbert and published in the 6 March 2003 issue of The New Haven Advocate.)

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