Interview with the Surveillance Camera Players

On Sunday, October 7, the day the United States began air strikes in Afghanistan, I and one other curious soul stood on the corner of Forty-second and Second Avenue to meet Bill Brown, a founding member of the Surveillance Camera Players, who was conducting his regularly scheduled Sunday walking tour of hidden surveillance cameras in New York. The tours, offered for free, cover the most heavily surveilled areas of the city, including Times Square, the lower-east side, Harlem, and Greenwich Village.

By coincidence, the UN was on the docket that day. Cement dividers, 40-foot dump trucks filled with sand, and wary-looking police officers maintained a one-block traffic-free zone around the UN grounds, creating an uncomfortable calm. The three of us huddled in the chilly shadow of the Israeli embassy on Second Ave. and Brown began revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the technology, deployment, and legal impact of surveillance cameras. At one point, he pulled a tiny paperback edition of the US constitution out of his backpack, held it in view of the camera above us disguised to resemble the lamp post under which it hung, and read the Fourth Amendment out loud: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." It was a pretty lonely moment.

We traveled only four blocks on the hour long tour, but Brown was never at a loss for another camera to reveal to our untrained eyes. Typically, they were bird-nest size gadgets attached under a building's entryway overhang and covered with tinted glass. He also pointed out cameras disguised to look like street lamps and traffic lights, and drew our attention to a few "first-generation" models, more cumbersome units, sometimes fully exposed hanging off the sides of building or peering down from rooftops. Embassies, hotels, corporate buildings, Wendy's and the UN itself were all dotted with a several cameras each. Given the combination, it would be hard to imagine that we were out of view of one or another camera for even a moment in that hour's time. Midway through the tour, we peeked through a break in the curtains at an embassy building and saw our images on a monitor being watched by several security guards sitting on a couch. A second screen in front of them was tuned to the bombings.

The Surveillance Camera Players, a loosely knit band of anarchist activists and performers, focuses its broad protest of Capitalism on the more symptomatic menace of proliferous video surveillance by law enforcement and private corporations in the US and abroad. The group gets its name from its prankster tactic of performing plays in front of surveillance cameras for the entertainment of those manning the monitors. They view this as a symbolic gesture of counter-surveillance, a means of raising public awareness through street theater, and a way to have some fun. (For information on performances as well as a schedule of walking tours, go to [note: incorrect web address deleted].) The rapidly increasing implementation of surveillance devices, very likely kicked into even higher gear after the recent terrorist attacks in the US, means the SCP will never be at a loss for new venues.

No official documentation as to the location of cameras is available to the public, so protesting them, not to mention avoiding them, requires enormous effort. To rectify this, the SCP has undertaken to painstakingly count and map cameras in New York by walking the streets and spotting them. So far, they have located about six thousand, though they say that's a highly conservative estimate and the actual number is probably closer to ten thousand. While on the UN tour, Brown excitedly discovered a few new arrivals since his last visit about six months previously. According to the New York office of the ACLU, which has also attempted to map cameras, most are operated by private corporations in the name of property protection. While it's legal for a private entity to use surveillance for this purpose, no federal laws exist concerning the allowable scope of the scanning, the type of information collected, nor the use to which such information may be put. Who exactly is watching us, what he or she is looking at, and how the footage is used remains a complete mystery. This arrangement, says the SCP, simply begs for abuse.

But, far from protecting citizens from "unreasonable searches," as the SCP defines one-way video surveillance, the New York City Police Department has steadily increased its own use of cameras. Defenders of the practice say it's no different that the NYPD appointing several thousand more beat police. But the SCP say that unlike with the actual presence of a police officer, hidden surveillance robs the public of its right to observe those observing them, to take note if police officers are targeting people by type, harassing women, or otherwise misusing the power granted them.

Brown and his co-activists have been trying to raise awareness about surveillance for the last five years and, though they've been alarmed at the sluggishness of public opposition, they'd received a considerable amount of interest from the mainstream media and been covered by, the New York Times and other widely read publications. But on September 12, 2001, Brown says, the calls just stopped. In SCP's view, the threat to our civil rights that was already dangerously obscured by a kind of popular ambivalence about privacy and voyeurism, has now been completely overshadowed by the terrorist panic seizing the country. On October 12, the House and Senate jointly passed the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which, according to Laura Murphy of the ACLU, gives the government "expanded power to invade our privacy, imprison people without due process and punish dissent." Camera surveillance is especially easy to abuse since no case law exists through which to measure its legal perimeters. After the attacks, New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir quickly announced that he planned to install an additional 100 surveillance cameras in Times Square. (The SCP says the area is already home to at least 154 cameras.) In addition to conventional cameras, much cheer-leading has been heard about the benefits of biometric or "face recognition" technology, which allows the camera to match images of passers-by with a database presumably filled with photos of known terrorists. In some ways, the use of this technology is like asking any passer-by to step in to a police lineup.

In SCP's essay responding to September 11, entitled Nothing Has Changed, Therefore Everything Must Change, they state that in fact the WTC and Pentagon attacks are resounding proof of the total failure of video surveillance. Adding still more cameras now is law enforcement's attempt to trade civil rights for the appearance of competence and a hollow sense of security. They write:

The New York Surveillance Camera Players can report from first-hand experience that, prior to the attacks, there were so many surveillance cameras in operation in the WTC area that their locations couldn't possibly be counted or mapped out, at least, that is, using the simple tools available to the NY SCP. No doubt some of these cameras were installed and operated by the FBI -- and the CIA too? -- in the wake of the first terrorist attack on the WTC in 1993; most of them were probably installed and operated by either the NYPD or security firms hired by the WTC or the businesses that rented space in it. None of these surveillance cameras did what they were supposed to do: anticipate or prevent another attack; provide security; keep thousands of people safe from harm.

As for the usefulness of face recognition software, Nothing Has Changed quotes Bruce Schneider, founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc., on the potential effectiveness of FRS in airports:

Suppose this magically effective face-recognition software is 99.99 percent accurate. That is, if someone is a terrorist, there is a 99.99 percent chance that the software indicates "terrorist," and if someone is not a terrorist, there is a 99.99 percent chance that the software indicates "non-terrorist." Assume that one in ten million flyers, on average, is a terrorist. Is the software any good? No. The software will generate 1000 false alarms for every one real terrorist. And every false alarm still means that all the security people go through all of their security procedures. Because the population of non-terrorists is so much larger than the number of terrorists, the test is useless. This result is counterintuitive and surprising, but it is correct. The false alarms in this kind of system render it mostly useless. It's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" increased 1000-fold. I say mostly useless, because it would have some positive effect. Once in a while, the system would correctly finger a frequent-flyer terrorist. But it's a system that has enormous costs: money to install, manpower to run, inconvenience to the millions of people incorrectly identified, successful lawsuits by some of those people, and a continued erosion of our civil liberties. And all the false alarms will inevitably lead those managing the system to distrust its results, leading to sloppiness and potentially costly mistakes."

But in the end, questions of effectiveness are only so relevant to the SCP as they do not believe that authorities' true motive for the use of video surveillance is now or ever has been crime prevention. "You don't see the New York Post filled with stories of arrests made possible by surveillance. You don't hear the mayor or Mr. Safir trumpeting the success of cameras in crime prevention, because that's not what they're doing," say Brown. "They are not intended to cut down on crime, they are simply there for purposes of social control and watching dissidents." The more those in charge can see of individuals' lives, in other words the more transparent we become, the more we are capable of being shaped to fit their mold. This "theory of transparency," the SCP writes in its "texte de combat," entitled Time in the Shadows of Anonymity (available at the SCP Web site), underlies current trends not only in law enforcement, but also in architecture, economics and pop culture:

"In our society, there is 'no darkness' -- or, rather, there is 'less darkness' -- in part because the mass of people have been conditioned to 'voluntarily' make themselves transparent to the gaze of all. As demonstrated by certain works by Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, the Catholic Church -- specifically, the institution of confession, which has become generalized through-out 'Christian' culture -- and 'reality-based' television shows, respectively, inculcate and reward the adoption and internalization of the notions that it is both moral and healthy to routinely render oneself transparent to either the eyes of God or the eyes of the camera. No one should be 'hiding something,' no matter what it is. Everything must be publicly confessed, no matter how banal or reprehensible."

After the UN tour I spoke with Brown on the steps of Grand Central Terminal, as members of the National Guard and grim faced travelers shuffled around us.


Moira Brennan: Can you tell me how the Surveillance Camera Players started?

Bill Brown: The SCP was formed five years ago by a group of people who were involved in a prank, which was running the Unibomber [sic] for president as a write-in candidate in 1996. That was before anyone knew the name Ted Kaczynski, so we were just nominating an FBI file. (Brown backed out of the prank after Kaczynski was caught. "I liked the Unibomber a lot better than I like Ted Kaczynski," he says.) After the election we were looking for the next platform of protest. My friend Michael had this flyer he used to hand out called The Manifesto for the Guerrilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment that described surveillance and gives a list of suggestions of what one could do to fight against it. One of those was you could treat a surveillance cameras as if it were a television camera, and every Thursday at 9:00, say, do a show.

Our first performance was Dec. 10 of 1996. It was very successful in that the NYPD stopped us while we were performing. So they were alerted to it and arrived within 10 minutes. Their attitude was very gruff, as they used to be in New York, this was before all the police scandals of the last few years (and the NYPD's subsequent attempts to become more respectful). Literally the officer's first words were, "I warned you once before. If you don't stop now, I'm arresting you." So I could see that this was a very effective form of protest, if he was willing to lie right away like that. The group didn't do anything for about a year after that, because surveillance wasn't such a big part of New York life. And it was in early 1998 that Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir started putting surveillance cameras up in Washington Square Park and at Lillian Wald Park down on Avenue D. At that time we became more active and began to really look into what we're in for if this practice and technology continues, which it certainly has.

MB: If surveillance cameras were effective in preventing crime, would you still be opposed to them?

BB: My objection wouldn't be unconditional, as it is now. The use of surveillance cameras has two great weaknesses: not only does it damage the Fourth Amendment, but it doesn't work. If it actually worked, then we might have a calibrated discussion of where the line is between fighting crime and protecting privacy. But as it is, there is no line. It [surveillance] violates privacy and does not do its announced purpose. There are others, Norm Siegal of the ACLU, for example, who are conditionally opposed, but we're unconditional.

MB: But in Time in the Shadows of Anonymity your criticism of the cameras is fundamentally anti-Capitalist. I guess I'm wondering how one can tolerate even a conditional use of the cameras if in the end it's to buoy a Capitalist system.

BB: Time in the Shadows aims to point out that Capitalism has made use of the rampant consumption of images to further itself. For that reason, it's no coincidence that surveillance cameras have become the tool of choice. Capitalism thrives on image production and consumption -- it's the soil in which surveillance for the purposes of social control is able to grow. It's rich soil for that growth, because it makes people comfortable with the fact of gaining information primarily through visual imagery. Capitalism has shifted from the production and consumption of corn, steel and cars, say, to the production of ideologies, lifestyles and images. And that's why surveillance is growing so rapidly. It is supported by an ideology that honors transparency and visual imagery, which is Capitalism. You can see this with Reality Television. People love surveillance shows. It's not because they have some false consciousness, lack of information, or that people are stupid. No they're not stupid. They're not uneducated. They're really getting a reward from this. A fundamental question that's not being answered is, "Why do people find it biologically satisfying to watch these shows, to be on display and watch the spectacle of display?"

MB: And what's your answer to that question?

BB: You shift the focus from surveillance to teaching people how to take care of themselves. Part of the biological urge is that people need authority figures, they need a sense of order. People feel comforted when they see the National Guard. And that what you'd change is the bio-psychological by saying, "You need to be more comfortable with your own body, with your own ability to protect yourself. You don't need to be constantly depending on a father figure to make you feel physically safe." One of the reason that people become voyeurs is because they perceive their life to be uninteresting. They perceive other people's lives to be more interesting. And if you actually encourage them to develop their personalities, they'd completely lose interest in passively watching other people. I mean everyone knows that the reality television shows in the US are so boring.

MB: It's true, though, that one of the ways we learn compassion for our fellow beings is through the revelation of our deep selves. An actor, for example, moves an audience by not only simulating but actually experiencing real emotions in front of them. How do you reconcile those two ideas?

BB: That's why I put such an emphasis on performing in the SCP. Yes, performing allows us to tap into our personalities. There are a lot of people who have an intellectual objection to surveillance but never actually act -- as in take action. Were you to act, you would feel a breakthrough in your own fear -- that somehow you're going to get beaten up or killed for this -- and a feeling of self-empowerment or enrichment comes over the performers. It's actually fun. It's different from an intellectual protest. It involves the whole body, the whole person. I think if people became "actors" more and more, they'd lose their interest in being spectators or voyeurs. They'd say, "How I felt is what's rewarding." Not this abstract reward you get from watching other people. And I think that's why other people go to great lengths to make their lives "rewarding." That's why a high school kid will shoot up Columbine High School, because their life is [sic] deprived and bankrupt. And the only way they can see it as becoming rewarding and livable is by becoming a media image. People either go from no action to nihilism or destruction. They go from no action to action that's murderous; there's nothing in between. In a healthy society, there are plenty of things in between. But we're not given those intermediary steps between total passivity and this crazy militancy of the suicide bomber. On either end there's death and not life: the deathful stillness of being a spectator or acting as an angel of death. It's life that we want.

MB: And Capitalism . . .

BB: . . . produces spectators. It inculcates passivity. Everywhere we go [today], there are people watching TV coverage about what we're doing today in Afghanistan. They're not doing anything; they're watching others act in their name. And I think it's not a far-out theory to see that Capitalism produces images and produces people who are addicted to them and that means producing passive people. So in that way, the fight against surveillance is also an anti-Capitalist fight, which is to stop people from being so passive. If you want a safe city, learn to take care of yourself; know what to do when you're in an unsafe situation; how to get yourself out of that situation instead of throwing up your hands and calling the police. I personally had to go through that as a kid. I was born in Brooklyn, but raised in Long Island. My parents inculcated into me an irrational fear of the city. It wasn't until I was 25 that I was able to say, "This is my city and there's no reason for me to be afraid of it." And surveillance cameras prevent people from reaching that awareness, that either they become adults or they're continually dependent on that authority, from Daddy in their family to Howard Safir or Mayor Giuliani. Surveillance cameras keep people infantile and dependent.

As far as privacy goes, it's a key aspect of life. Humans are remarkably social creatures. And at the same time, privacy is still an essential ingredient in what makes us human. It's that balance that's being lost. There are some people who never take a public stand, who live privatized lives and say it's Congress who's responsible for making the world work. And then there are other people who live in public all the time and don't have a private life. All I'm saying is the balance has been lost. The Greek model of society is a balance. You put on the mask of the Chorus and you speak. Not as yourself, but as a member of the community. But you take the mask off and you go back to being a private person. That's really what Democracy is. A balance. And that balance is totally out of whack in our culture right now.

MB: Which leads us to your interest in Anarchism.

BB: Everything I've been describing -- encouraging autonomy and the ability for people to take care of themselves -- is anarchism, the absence of leaders. It doesn't mean that there's no power structures or organizations. It means that people organize themselves without having a stable, fixed group of "experts" doing it for them.

MB: Or a god.

BB: It's the same thing. The mayor, the father, or God: they're all watching out for us, sometimes literally watching us. And preventing us from doing it for ourselves. In many ways, anarchism is society becoming adult. Tolerance for nontransparency exists in religious thought, but it's the heretics that are the ones who believe in it. Jewish mysticism is totally opaque. Many of the Christian heretics, the Cathars, for example, would say, "yeah, it's true that all visible reality is one giant lie and that the real reality is the invisible one."

MB: I feel like each time I ask you about the Capitalist underpinnings of this, we end up talking about psychology and not economics.

BB: Well, that's right [as it should be]. And this is to me the relevance of Wilhelm Reich (author of The Mass Psychology of Fascism, among other works). This has all been a conversation about Reich. He's the only major thinker of the 20th century to pose things this way. Most Marxists, most Leftists, even the Situationists, when confronted with people who are passive or acting irrationally, rail against them: "They're stupid. They've been inculcated with too much propaganda." What those critics don't realize is that people are doing this for a reason. They classic example is Nazi Germany. You don't get an entire society like Germany to become fascist by pointing a gun at them. The citizens have to want to be in a fascist society. And Reich was the only person to say this.

MB: A lot of people look at the SCP and say, "you're wasting your time, you'll never be able to change the situation."

BB: And they're missing the point, which is that we're trying to decondition or dedomesticate ourselves. It isn't about persuading that person over there that he shouldn't like surveillance cameras. He'll make up his own mind. Primarily what we're doing is standing there and saying [that] we're trying to decondition ourselves. And say that we have power, even though we're individuals or a small group. To say that, "Yes, individuals can be powerful. Even though everything that you're told tells you the opposite." The ruling classes, if you'll allow me to use such outdated language, don't want us to know how powerful we really are. But a single person standing in front of a tank in Tiennamen Square is very powerful. More powerful than the tank. We must always remember that. I like the fact that people say what we're doing is absurd. Two people on a walking tour. That's absurd. How are we going to fight against it with two people? And the feeling is, we're the two people standing in front of the tank on Tiennamen Square. And that at least, for us, we've freed ourselves from the dread and despair. You might say that I have lowered expectations or that I no longer believe in mass movements and [that] I just want to take it one individual at a time.

Introduction written and interview conducted by Moira Brennan. Published in Sandbox (#10, Fall 2001). Subsequently proofread by Bill Brown. Comments within (parentheses) are made by Ms. Brennan. Comments within [brackets] are by Bill.

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NY Surveillance Camera Players