Shudder to Think

Security Cameras Won't Stop Crime, but They'll Sure Make Us Feel Afraid

[...] With the recent spate of shootings and the Toronto Sun obligingly conjuring up a "gang time bomb," police chief Fantino is taking another whack at expanding video surveillance in the city, hoping to replace the ambiguous stare of the cop on the corner with the unfeeling gaze of a camera on a signpost.

While you can try to engage the police, all you can really do to reason with a camera is gesticulate wildly, which is sure to arouse even more suspicion -- especially if the camera's hooked up to new software that is supposed to identify "suspicious" movements. That's what Bill Brown has learned. He's a member of New York's Surveillance Camera Players, a group that puts on shows for surveillance cameras and whose members are a cross between popular educators, guerrilla actors and tour guides.

"It started off as a prank," Brown recounts. "Originally we thought we were performing for the watchers. Then the group became popular. Now it's hard to tell who the audience is." There's a similar blur between participants and observers, since their plays -- which include Waiting For Godot, skits on surveillance culture and simply holding up signs saying "mind your own business" -- invariably attract the attention of security [...]

And while skeptics say that cameras simply move crime out of commercial zones into often already crime-ridden residential areas, [Phil] Campbell [of the Toronto law firm Lockyear and Campbell] believes that earlier attempts at state omniscience failed because there wasn't enough paranoia and the technology was lacking. In light of the face-recognition software on the market and the relative ease with which cameras can be networked, he feels it's only a matter of time. "As surveillance gets more effective as a limit on freedom, it will get more effective as a limit on crime," he states. "It just will."

Brown is not nearly as awed by the tech. "And 'smart bombs' go off target and destroy the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade," he says dryly. "People will sue police forces for wrongful prosecution. Police won't like being replaced by cameras. Eventually people will realize this isn't cost-effective."

I'm always aghast at people's ability to obey shiny things above their heads. Our image-saturated society doesn't help -- the electronic eyes must surely rely on our strange relationship with the machine. The truth is, cameras may not be effective at stopping crime (as Brown points out, "Someone walked right by a bank of cameras and shot a New York City councillor"), but they're quite good at keeping us afraid [...]

(Written by Mike Smith and published in the 14-20 August 2003 issue of NOW Toronto.)

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