TECHNOLOGY: Surveillance and the City

[...] As innovative traffic schemes increasingly rely on cameras and surveillance, civil libertarians are reminding city dwellers and city planners that not all potential uses of the new technology are as savory as catching criminals. A host of initiatives, such as computerized tolls like EZ Pass, camera-based programs like New York's live webcam Advanced Traveler Information System, or even local television traffic updates, are designed to make travel easier by using some sort of surveillance. When these systems are enlisted by law enforcement, however, they may end up undermining the very freedom they seek to encourage, with insufficient mitigating improvements in public safety [...]

But whether or not law enforcement officers have voyeuristic intentions, many people feel watched. "It changes people's behavior, it changes their perceptions of liberty and society," says Barry Steinhardt, assistant director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

One group in New York has satirized the almost unavoidable security and traffic cameras by imagining what life would be like in the city if residents actively avoided cameras. The Surveillance Camera Players make use of a map of surveillance cameras prepared by the New York Civil Liberties Union Camera Surveillance Project by comically trying to walk through New York without being caught on video. They also play to the cameras, performing specially adapted plays in front of them. Their motto -- "Completely Distrustful of Government" -- is a play on Police Commissioner Howard Safir's brush-off, "Only someone completely distrustful of all government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras" [...]

The benefits of surveillance-based traffic systems like London's are tangible and enticing. But such systems are designed to ease movement, not to catch criminals. The Surveillance Camera Players are joking around now, but it only takes a few more Ybor City-type incidents before people start thinking twice about letting themselves be seen by city cameras. Instead of improving mobility throughout American cities, these systems, without strong limits on function creep, may make many people feel less free to move at all.

(Written by Asher Price and published in The Next American City: The Changing Neighborhood June 2003.

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