Hidden Eyes of Our Apple

(or, the Return of Howard Safir)

Big Brother is watching -- and he gets new sets of eyes daily. Thousands of security cameras in New York already capture almost every move you make, from buying your coffee to taking your final steps home after a day at the office. But more cameras are being added constantly -- about 30 percent more each of the last two years, according to security experts.

"There are now tens of thousands of them in the city," said Howard Safir, the ex-police commissioner who heads the SafirRosetti security firm. Most of the devices are privately owned, but the NYPD wants to carpet the city with its own cameras, putting up hundreds more of them in high-crime areas and around terror targets.

Their top techie, Deputy Commissioner James Onalfo, is working on a plan that calls for up to $1 billion in new computers, software, cameras and other gadgets to help bring the NYPD out of the dark ages of technology. Onalfo, recruited last May from IBM by Commissioner Ray Kelly, was sent to London to study that city's comprehensive camera system, which covers almost every square inch of public space. New York cops want the new cameras to track terror suspects and solve crimes -- and they're hoping to install scores of them before this summer's Republican convention.

"They're tired of always having to rely on the private cameras," said one NYPD captain.

It's all part of a continuing security-camera boom fed by terror jitters and cheap digital devices, which are more sophisticated -- and more easily disguised -- than ever.

"The cameras are getting smaller and more powerful," said Safir, who introduced city surveillance to housing projects and Washington Square Park in 1997. The new cameras can recognize your face, follow you as you move around and even capture your image in total darkness.

To see just how often the average New Yorker is caught on film, a Post reporter spent the day gathering images from some of the 200 or so cameras he passed during a typical Tuesday on the job. It started early -- at 9:51 a.m., when he got coffee at the deli around the corner from his Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, apartment. About an hour later, he was captured driving on the BQE at Sackett Street by a Department of Transportation traffic cam. From there, he was spotted almost constantly: walking into the newspaper's building on Sixth Avenue in Midtown, riding the elevator to his office, meeting a source in Times Square, talking on the street, eating lunch, taking the subway, having a drink with a pal, renting a DVD. A mix of public and private cameras tracked him moment by moment doing a host of mundane activities. Under the law, only areas where you have "a reasonable expectation of privacy" are off-limits.

Still, civil-rights activists worry about the impact of all the new cameras. "It's extremely unnerving," said Donna Lieberman, who heads the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The NYPD hopes to escalate the amount of surveillance that already goes on. It seems you can't go to the grocery store without being caught on tape."

(Written by Brad Hamilton and published 2 May 2004 by The New York Post.)

Commentary by the Surveillance Camera Players

1. This article was published shortly after it was revealed that 1) one of the NYPD's video units was the ultimate source of a video (depicting a suicide) that ended up on a pornographic web site; and 2) many of the officers assigned to these video units are on "modified duty." If the NYPD cannot be trusted with their old surveillance cameras, we would be foolish to trust them with newer, smaller and even more powerful ones.

2. The number of privately owned surveillance cameras is growing much faster than this article indicates: i.e., not 30 percent, but 100 percent, per year. And so, in the Lower East Side, for example, there was a 500 percent increase between 1998 and 2002.

3. All these new cameras have not been going up in "high-crime areas" and "around terror targets." (There are in fact no "high-crime areas" in New York City, which is among America's safest cities; and, as September 11th conclusively demonstrated, surveillance cameras do nothing to deter terrorists.) No: the new cameras have mostly been going up in gentrifying or already-rich residential neighborhoods, where video surveillance is "useful" only because it gets discounts on insurance rates.

4. According to this article, NYPD investigators have used some of the privately owned cameras so many times that "they're tired of always having to rely on [them]." This is a startling admission, one that's never been made before and should have been followed-up upon by the reporter (who failed to). Which private cameras have been used? How many times did the NYPD obey the law and get warrants before "requesting" access to private footage? What was done with the footage when the NYPD was done with it? Was it returned, destroyed or secretly sold off to pornographic websites?

5. If Deputy Commissioner James Onalfo used to work with IBM, and if there is the possibility that he might one day return to this company, we have the right to expect that IBM cannot bid on the $1 billion (!) contract. Otherwise, the situation might look like bribery, influence-peddling or some other form of "white collar" crime. (Note: the brand-new and very sophisticated surveillance system in Chicago "only" cost $3.5 million.)

6. Where's this staggeringly large amount of money going to come from? Read between the lines: the NYPD is "hoping to install scores of [the cameras] before this summer's Republican convention." In other words, the NYPD is going to try to get the Secret Service and/or the Department of Homeland Security to pay for its video system. And so, once the traveling circus (the Republican National Convention) has left town, New Yorkers will be stuck with a permanent apparatus that would "normally" have been way too expensive to construct.

7. Even if NYC did have $1 billion to spend on such a system, this particular proposal -- at least as it has been detailed here -- is clearly doomed to failure. Face recognition software has already been tried and abandonned by police in Tampa Bay, Florida: its error rates are way too high. Furthermore, what goes on in London -- capital of one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world, despite the fact that surveillance cameras cover virtually every kilometre of it -- should not be used as a guide for what should go on in New York. In addition to being ineffective against criminal behavior, London's camera system violates the provisions of Article 8 of the Human Right Act, a fact that will become a major problem if and when England votes to become a part of the European Union.

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