Smile, You're On Big Brother

To some, Bill Brown sounds paranoid about privacy. As he gives a tour of Washington Square Park's surveillance cameras, Brown uses the words of a radical. He motions to a police surveillance camera and says, "We're living in a proto-totalitarian police state."

Of course, Brown doesn't always sound like this -- he knows that in the forum of public thought, surveillance cameras are not even in the theatre at the moment. "It's easy for people to think of me as paranoid," Brown says.

Brown co-founded and directs the Surveillance Camera Players, a group that performs skits in front of surveillance cameras in New York City to criticize and draw attention to the cameras.

Brown tries to speak moderately about something he obviously feels passionate about. He is concerned about surveillance cameras invading personal privacy on public streets. But this privacy issue has drawn little public attention since the city government first installed cameras in New York City's parks and subways three years ago.

At first there were some newspaper articles and community board meetings about the surveillance cameras. But since then they have virtually disappeared from public discussion. "The cameras have blended into the woodwork," says Arthur Strickler, the director of Community Board 2, which presides over Washington Square Park.

"The issue seems to be nonexistent," Strickler says. "People have acquiesced to the idea of the cameras.

"People get upset over something as obscure as Internet cookies." Brown says, "But they have been trained to not expect privacy in public places.

"It's not just the homeless who should be concerned about these cameras," Brown says, motioning towards a camera in Washington Square Park. "The student, the businessman-- everybody has something they don't want broadcast to the public." The Surveillance Camera Players mug for the hidden camera at Rockefeller Center.

In one recent performance, Brown and two other players stand outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral while a Sunday Mass is letting out. The performance was arranged because a French television station is profiling the Surveillance Camera Players, and throughout the performance a cameraman hovers around the players. The skit starts with the players all pointing toward the surveillance camera hanging from a light post outside of the cathedral. The players hold up large hand drawn signs about surveillance cameras at the church, and some of the posters read, "Why are there surveillance cameras at the church?" and "Doesn't God see everything?" The players mock the cameras by kneeling and praying to the cameras.

A crowd of pedestrians and churchgoers stop and look at the performance. Public reaction ranges from outrage -- "This is blasphemous!" cries one woman -- to begrudging agreement. "I don't really know what their point is. But [the cameras] are Big Brother watching us, I agree with that," says one man leaving the church.

Washington Square Park was once a center of New York City's 60s counter culture, where Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsburgh could be seen playing guitar and hanging out. In the 90s it was known as a place where small time drug dealers whispered "Smoke, smoke" to students, tourists and locals as they walked through the park.

In November of 1997, to combat the drug dealing, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir installed nine cameras in and around the park; two more came later. There was little fanfare or community discussion.

This was the first location for the cameras. Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union has counted 300 government operated cameras in Manhattan (the city government has no list of cameras) with more than 2,000 private cameras capable of viewing the streets. The NYCLU created a map of Manhattan detailing the positions of all the cameras counted.

As Brown gives a walking tour of Washington Square Park, he gives a running commentary. "So okay, we're just walking, we're walking. Do you see it? Do you see the camera? Boom!" He says. "It's over there." Fifty feet away, at the edge of the park, looking somewhat like a street lamp, is a black half-globe that contains a camera. The camera, which works on a closed circuit television system, can zoom and operate at night, according to police.

Detective Michael Singer of the 6th Precinct said the cameras were placed to discourage drug dealing and drug use in Washington Square Park.

"The cameras have worked," says Singer. "There have been less arrests. More importantly, though, people have been telling us that there are less people selling drugs in the park," he says. Singer says that the cameras are not intended to catch people selling or using drugs, but to prevent them from doing illegal activities in the park in the first place.

Some critics of the cameras say that they don't prevent people from selling or using drugs, but just move those activities to side streets outside the camera's view.

The legislative director of the NYCLU, Marina Sheriff, accepts that the cameras are here to stay, and says that in some cases the cameras are useful. But she wants the cameras to be regulated by state and city law. She says, "If part of the purpose of the cameras is to prevent crime and not just to catch it happening, then signs telling people that they're being watched can be helpful. There's no good reason that signs shouldn't be up."

But Singer disagrees, saying that the signs are not necessary. "The people who would be concerned [drug dealers and users] know about the cameras."

Signs are only one way that Sheriff wants the cameras regulated. "Right now the cameras are unregulated, unmonitored, and no one knows the use of the cameras. At the minimum there should be an eye on how the cameras are being used," she said.

Besides signs alerting people that they are being videotaped, Sheriff wants laws for what happens to the videotapes and a law requiring all surveillance cameras to be registered.

A mobile police van outside Washington Square Park monitors and operates the cameras, which can zoom and rotate. Police keep the videotapes for seven days before they hand them over to the courts if there is a crime, or if there is no crime they erase the tapes. The NYCLU wants the tapes kept for only three days.

For Brown, the NYCLU is not doing nearly enough. He plans to take New York City to court over the cameras which he says the NYCLU does not plan to do. He plans on getting arrested for putting up signs letting people know that they're being watched.

Brown says the NYCLU, often lauded as the protector of civil liberties in New York, is not doing enough about the cameras. "They say there's no case, but I look at the facts, and I think there is. It's cowardice on their part. This is a clear violation of the 4th amendment, the protection from illegal search and seizure.

"These cameras are capable of zooming to objects up to a mile away. They can see at night. The founding fathers couldn't imagine these cameras," Brown says.

Brown sees the possibility of face-recognition technology as a major concern. Face-recognition technology would allow for images of people to be matched with their driver's licenses, police records, medical records.

Even though the police department doesn't use such technology yet, Brown says the danger is that "they're building the infrastructure right now to do that. One day people are going to wake up and realize that they don't want Big Brother to know what they're doing and where they are at all times."

By David Schwartz. Originally published 15 December 2000 by New York University.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

Return to

Surveillance Camera Players


Return to