Watching Big Brother

To the list of must-see attractions in New York - the skyscraper tour, the literary tour - add one more. Because Bill Brown wants to take you on the Surveillance Camera Outdoor Walking Tour (Scowt for short). On a frigid afternoon last Sunday, Mr. Brown gave out photocopies of hand-drawn maps to a small but dedicated audience, most of them New Yorkers. The maps marked the locations of surveillance cameras in the Washington Square Park area. The cameras lurked on the perimeter of the park, disguised as street lamps, he told his followers. They dotted the walls of a new building on West Fourth Street, in the form of decorative bulbs. One even peeked out of the frame of a painting on the wall of a popular Greenwich Village cafe. What is more, their numbers are growing.

"Like mushrooms in a forest," Mr. Brown said, his eyes narrowing to a conspiratorial squint. Spying eyes, he warned, were everywhere. As the cameras watch, Mr. Brown, a 44-year-old legal proofreader from Brooklyn, stares right back. Over the last five years he has made it his business to spot and map surveillance cameras in New York City. The goal of his research is to help New Yorkers gain a sense of how much of their lives - from a jog in the park to some secretive hand-holding - is actually being recorded by somebody. From an apartment in Flatbush that he shares with his partner, Susan Hull, and six cats, Mr. Brown has been refining his maps of 12 Manhattan neighborhoods.

By his count, the number of surveillance cameras in Manhattan has tripled during the last five years, driven by an increase in private cameras. His method - more art than science - involves walking neighborhood streets and scrutinizing walls and doorways. In the five years since the New York Civil Liberties Union counted 2,397 cameras in the first formal survey in New York, Mr. Brown estimated that the number of cameras jumped to 7,200.

Mr. Brown is a slight man with a big appetite for politics. At 13, he raised money for the presidential campaign of George McGovern. Later in life he went into academics, earning a doctorate in American literature. He gave up teaching, and since the mid-1990's he has been proofreading and performing. For Mr. Brown, the presence of the cameras is a sign of creeping control by the authorities. He contends that they lull people into a sense of security that dulls vigilance among city residents and weakens communities.

"We don't worry for ourselves anymore," said Mr. Brown. "There are specialists that do the worrying for us. This is warping human beings." But though he warns that Big Brother is watching, the network of cameras in New York is by no means centralized. The police do maintain several clusters of cameras, for example, in Washington Square Park and in some public housing developments, but the vast majority of cameras on the city streets are privately owned, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

"Surveillance is ubiquitous, but it's not all tied together," Mr. Steinhardt said. "There are millions of private cameras" in America, but their use by the authorities "has not taken off." Civil libertarians like Mr. Brown are concerned that, in the not-too-distant future, the different camera systems could all be linked.

Mr. Brown first began watching the cameras in 1996. He decided that wry humor would be the best form of social protest. Two years later, while working at an anarchist bookstore called Blackout Books, since closed, he assembled a group of performance artists to act out silent plays in front of cameras around the city. He abandoned early efforts at literary performances that became unwieldy and sometimes baffling to onlookers. Now, the group, known as the Surveillance Camera Players, performs shorter acts of Mr. Brown's creation. In one, called "God's Eyes on Earth," actors perform in front of cameras at St. Patrick's Cathedral. In another, they tell the watcher "something interesting is going to happen any minute now." In winter, when it is too cold for plays, Mr. Brown conducts the tours. They are free, held rain, snow or shine, and offer surveillance tourists a primer on how to spot cameras.

"Almost all cameras you see today do not look like cameras," Mr. Brown said last Sunday on the Washington Square Park tour. "They're disguised to look like lamps or ornaments."

As the number of cameras increase, there are virtually no laws that govern their use, said Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant whose clients include government agencies and private companies. He said difficult legal questions are being raised. For example, he said, how should the law treat families whose cameras watch nurses caring for elderly parents or nannies caring for babies?

"The general rule is what goes on in public has no reasonable expectation of privacy," Mr. Gellman said. "I can walk in front of your house and take a picture. But suppose I put a surveillance camera in front of your house 24 hours a day? No one has addressed that in any particular way."

Critics of the cameras say they are ineffective in reducing crime. Watchers quickly tire of staring at empty street corners, the argument goes, and begin peeping at people, such as attractive women. A camera at a foreign consulate was found to have been trained on a nearby apartment, Mr. Brown said.

"The watchers get bored after 20 minutes," he said. "But they are working for seven hours, so they start amusing themselves."

The police, however, say the cameras work. A spokesman for the New York City Police Department said that since the department first installed camera systems in several city housing developments in 1997, crime has fallen in those areas, in part because of the monitoring. Currently, 15 developments throughout the city are monitored. The areas are marked with signs that warn people about the cameras. The police have also used recordings from private cameras to investigate crimes.

In the United States, camera use by the authorities is not widespread. But in England, its use by the authorities has exploded since the early 1990's, after London's financial district was hit by terrorist bombs. Jeffrey Rosen, an associate professor at George Washington University Law School, who has studied the English system, said an August 2002 government report found that the cameras reduced crime in parking lots but had little or no effect on public transportation or in other public areas in the center of the city. Even so, people liked the cameras, because they made them feel safer.

"The cameras are extremely popular," said Mr. Rosen. "Civil liberty objections have not been accepted by a majority of the public."

Mr. Brown, on the other hand, has an instinctive distrust of authority. The sound of a helicopter during Sunday's tour caused him to look quickly skyward. He announced a Black Hawk helicopter sighting. "Do they go so far as to try to pick up conversations?" asked one man. (No, Mr. Brown replied. In most cases, the law strictly regulates the taping of talk.)

Mr. Brown's mapping has become widely known. He has been invited to map in England, Austria and Germany. He has plans for Zagreb, Croatia. In the United States, he has mapped parts of New Haven, Chicago, Providence, R.I., and Portland, Ore. This spring he will map cameras along the Freedom Trail in Boston, ahead of the Democratic National Convention to be held there in July.

Watchers sometimes emerge from buildings to respond [to performances], Mr. Brown said. After a performance last summer in Times Square, in which the Surveillance Camera Players were walking counterclockwise around a camera, performing what Mr. Brown called a vanishing spell, the group was told that an alert had been raised among the National Guard. "They've turned us all into performers," Mr. Brown said, smiling.

(Written by Sabrina Tavernise and published in the 17 January 2004 issue of The New York Times.)

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