[...] But the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy-rights organizations see the proliferation of surveillance cameras as one chilling step towards a true Big Brother society.
"Many Americans still do not grasp that Big Brother surveillance is no longer the stuff of books and movies," said Barry Steinhardt, director of ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program and a co-author of a recent ACLU report on surveillance cameras. "With the tremendous explosion in surveillance-enabling technologies, including databases, computers, cameras, sensors, wireless networks, implantable microchips, GPS and biometrics. . . . Orwell's vision of Big Brother is for the first time technologically possible."
The ACLU, according to Steinhardt, "has no objection to cameras at specific, high-profile public places that are potential terrorist targets, such as the U.S. Capitol. But the impulse to blanket our public spaces and streets with video surveillance is a bad idea. Video surveillance has not been proven effective. It is far from clear how the proliferation of cameras through public spaces in America would stop a plot like the attack on the World Trade Center."
One group, the Surveillance Camera Players, maps surveillance cameras in New York City. Members perform specially-adapted plays in front of the cameras, and even hold weekly walking tours of heavily surveilled neighborhoods. On a recent tour, co-founder Bill Brown pointed out dozens of surveillance cameras along Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 52nd streets; many of the cameras resembled lighting fixtures.
"It is not reasonable that we are being surveilled in public," said Brown, a freelance proofreader. He and other group members like to hold up signs in front of cameras reading "We're watching you watching us."
A New York Civil Liberties Union 1998 count in the area bordered by Eighth and Fifth avenues and 42nd and 50th streets revealed 75 public surveillance cameras. In 2000, Brown canvassed the same area and found 130 surveillance cameras. At the end of 2002, he discovered 258 cameras -- most of which, he said, are never noticed by passersby.
The Surveillance Camera Players are opposed to public Web cams ("they violate the privacy of the people who are unwittingly videotaped by them," according to the group's Web site) and seek to "explode the cynical myth that only those who are 'guilty of something' are opposed being surveilled by unknown eyes." [...]
(Written by Peter Genovese and published in the Sunday 16 March 2003 issue of The New Jersey Star-Ledger.)
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