A Scout's Guide

to Surveillance Cameras in New York

Surveillance Camera Players are a group of anarchists/autonomists in Manhattan, New York which protest against the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces, which is a violation of the US constitutional right to privacy under the 4th Amendment. Informational walking tours or SCOWTs (Surveillance Camera Out-door Walking Tours) are conducted every Sunday afternoon at 2 PM during the summer months, from varied locations. The walking tours are involved in actively mapping out the location, type and ownership of the surveillance cameras in Manhattan. While visiting New York I thought, what better way to see New York, than through a tour of surveillance cameras. My Sunday afternoons became a bit of a derive as Bill the tour leader, gleefully attested to how the New York Mayor, the CIA and the Australian Department of Defence are frequent visitors to his website whilst he lead us zig-zagging about the streets, losing our coordinates in the big city.

Bill sometimes likes to go by the alias, Art Toad as a joke, Art Toad being a pun on the French poet, theorist, artist and actor [Antonin] Artaud. The Surveillance Camera Players are a combinational theatre and protest performance group, which perform to the surveillance cameras. The performances draw influence unintentionally from Antonin Artaud's theory of the "Theatre of Cruelty" and they have also performed Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Performances make use of the power of subversive humor and are silent, a statement in itself in New York City, but also as the surveillance cameras do not record sound. This silence also emphases the apparent discrepancy, as laws for video surveillance have never been brought to the same level of equivalence as those for audio surveillance.

"Who Controls The Control Men?" (William S. Burroughs, "Pistol Poem No. 2," A William Burroughs Birthday Book, Temple Press Limited, Brighton, 1994.)

Back in 1998 the American Civil Liberties Union made a count of surveillance cameras installed in public places in the Manhattan area of New York City. The total count was 2,397 surveillance cameras. Taking one of the tours I participated in as an example of the phenomenal increase in these cameras, in the area of Midtown the number of cameras had increased between January 2002 and May 2003 from 190 to 284. According to Bill, a liberal estimate of the number of surveillance cameras in operation in Manhattan is now more than 10,000. Which pales in comparison to London, the city with the highest concentration of surveillance cameras, where it is estimated there are 10,000 cameras in operation in London's financial district alone.

The location of surveillance cameras is noticeably peculiar considering their perceived purpose of crime prevention. Cameras are installed in predominantly rich zones of the city and markedly not in zones where there is high crime (the predominantly poorer zones). Cameras are also installed predominantly in crowded thoroughfares rather than in back alleys. Cameras are frequently installed within private property (though technically legal) but are obviously directed at monitoring public space.

Technically, surveillance cameras can be divided up into 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation cameras. First generation cameras are your traditional elongated box type cameras, for which it is obvious which direction the cameras are looking. These cameras are closed-circuit systems which means you need to be directly connected to the cameras to see their view. Second generation cameras are typically semi-concealed and intentionally made to look like black bulb-like ornaments or street lights. These cameras are far more sophisticated in their rotation and zooming capabilities. Third generation cameras are slowly starting to appear and it is these that most erode our sense of freedom and privacy. These cameras are linked to databases of previously acquired images which with the use of face and gesture recognition software attempt to identify individuals from facial and character traits. This allows the surveillance cameras to recognize individuals, inappropriate movements, suspicious gestures and other strange behaviors. Third generation cameras will also effectively allow the integration of these disparate systems, into a network, facilitating the tracking of your movement from the bank to the doctors to the insurance agency to the workplace . . . mostly without you ever being aware. Over time these cameras and networks of databases create a virtual digital body of ourselves.

"You can't encrypt your face." (Phil Zimmermann, creator of PGP.)

Of similar concern are Microwave Relay Transmitters (MRTs) often installed in contravention of regulations. These devices beam images from surveillance cameras via microwaves (just like your mobile phone) to external sites. If you can see one of these from your bedroom or office window it is time to be concerned. Incidentally, with limited know how it is possible to tap into the frequency of these devices and in essence see what the camera is viewing.

Many financial institutions and major corporations now also have webcams continuously streaming onto the internet looking out into the street, for the intended purpose of monitoring traffic and commerical premises. This offers a fun opportunity, where one can co-opt this technology and hold up political placards in front of the webcams, which then become an embarrassment on the companies website.

What's going on with all these surveillance cameras? Contrary to what is often supposed, rarely are these cameras actually monitored in real time by human operators. If a crime actually occurs the surveillance system is not pro-active, no-one is watching to actually call a cop, hence it cannot directly prevent crime. The systems are only reactive, in providing evidence which may lead to a conviction, what is effectively only at best a secondary defence. In any case without catching the culprits, the faces on screen usually remain nameless. Surveillance cameras are intentionally concealed, and rarely labeled so nor do they act as a visual deterrent. The cameras are in fact present because they allow reductions in insurance fees for private companies and not surprisingly many surveillance camera manufacturers are owned by insurance companies. What is happening is an interesting little insurance scam. The bored operators of these cameras also indulge in their misuse through racial profiling, voyeuristic sexual perving and the trafficing of the content to reality TV shows and internet sites.

"He's hiding something from the rest of us / He's all to himself / I think I know why." (Tom Waits, "What's He Building?")

So you think we're paranoid, right? Yet, perhaps the real paranoia lies with the installers of these cameras which proliferate unregulated like viruses throughout the cities. To suggest the surveillance of the surveillants is just a defeatist position spiraling ever upwards and culminating in a universal top down surveillance of us all. It assures the continuing establishment of a hierarchical society of control. For this reason, the Surveillance Camera Players disregard the concept of turning the cameras on the cameras.

Post September 11, the old military surveillance tools which used to be directed towards foreign powers, have now been turned inward on the nation's own citizens. The war on terrorism has allowed new encroachments on civil liberties and the further erosion of rights than what had begun with the American war on drugs. Everyone is now under suspicion. Following the enactment of the US Patriot Act privacy and freedom are fast eroding along with the slowly encroaching reduction to a police state. No one needs to declare martial law anymore. And don't think it won't reach Australia, it already has. Such moves are mirrored in The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Legislation Amendment [Terrorism] Bill.

"We're moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication. Burroughs was the first to address this" (Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995, P. 174.) The control society as foreseen by Burroughs is the encroaching universal confinement, that controls through its invisibility. Is that camera on? It is no longer the panopticon society of the 18th and 19th centuries as described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. The new control society becomes, not wholly a police state of prisons and cops, but also of the invisible control of camera surveillance, cyber trailing, media control and medical scrutiny. The ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras signposts the increasing imprisonification of society. The leading edge in surveillance technologies are now being implemented in the ever growing prison systems, including electronic eye and finger print detection systems, just as the old generation of technologies roll out into the public streets.

"Power Is Often Very Quiet" (William S. Burroughs, "Pistol Poem No. 3.")

Indeed our very notions of privacy need to keep pace, which have been largely handed down as that of enclosed space, itself a result of the disciplinary regime which divides and regulates space. As our bodies become increasingly virtual and disembodied, as we merge more with the distributed information and data domains of modern communication, the very notion of privacy also becomes fractured and fragmented. We can no longer think about privacy according to the old rigor. The spaces of privacy and non-privacy have become splintered. At what point are we no longer anonymous?

As the control landscape mutates from segmentation to continuousness, from enclosures to passwords, from closed domains to open distributed networks, the tactics and modes of engagement of the activist must also migrate. To decode the spectacle of surveillance requires new circuit breakers, wigged hackers and pixelated cruelty. So, who wants to form a Surveillance Camera Players Brisbane?

(Written by Robert Lort and published 17 June 2003 in Retort Magazine.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998