Always On Camera

[...] Crime prevention is a modern obsession, and since attacks last year on the World Trade Center and Pentagon -- and, most recently, the serial shootings in the Washington, D.C., suburbs -- so is anything that promises to even the odds against terrorists and sicko sharpshooters. "There is a tremendous concern about safety," said [John] Kostanoski [chairman of the security systems department at Farmingdale State University of New York]. And, as the professor knows, there also is worry in some quarters that increased surveillance will profoundly compromise privacy and close the aperture on America's open society a precious f-stop, or two. Kostanoski said he tells students they have an ethical obligation to respect basic freedoms while meeting professional demands. "We live in a society with a right to privacy," he said. "This is 2002, and not Orwell's '1984.' The right of privacy is alive. That is at the heart of independence in a society like ours."

Whether privacy activists would be reassured is questionable [...]

Bill Brown, a New York privacy advocate and freelance editor, said Americans must be clear about the potential for mischief in a world dotted with surveillance cameras -- especially those installed by government.

"Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, video surveillance was a hallmark of totalitarian power," said Brown. "France, Spain, Germany have had first-hand experience with fascism. In America, people do not know what is at stake with maximum surveillance of everybody, even if innocent. We don't have political history to know what's at stake." Brown claims the Police Department in New York City has installed at least 1,000 video cameras around Manhattan -- NYPD acknowledges cameras only in certain "housing locations" and at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village -- and conducts Sunday tours to alert citizens as to the whereabouts of police CCTV (closed circuit television) units. Taking a more antic approach, Brown also works with a group called the Surveillance Camera Players who perform in front of what they believe are government security devices. In one production, Brown and his troupe carry signs -- there is no sound on surveillance tapes because of wiretap regulations -- intended to put inquisitive authorities at ease. "It's okay, Officer, just going to work," says one. "Just going home," says another [...].

(Written by Fred Bruning and published in the 28 October 2002 edition of Newsday.)

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