They're watching you

From highways to nightclubs to ATMs, electronic eyes are everywhere you go -- and multiplying fast

[...] At any given time, someone, somewhere, is watching the majority of Tampa Bay residents go about their daily business -- walking through downtown Tampa, driving on U.S. 19, eating lunch in a gated community's park, enjoying beer with a co-worker, buying groceries or just relaxing at a local beach. Even children, from the moment they step off school buses until their last class, are followed by school-operated surveillance camera systems. And as the technology becomes cheaper, the use of cameras to peer down at residents only seems to be increasing. Could Tampa ever become another part of Oceania, the totalitarian dystopia described in George Orwell's 1984?

Proponents of the surveillance net say it's necessary in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million to keep the peace and deter crime. Others say hogwash.

"Tampa Bay has become a model of how not to conduct surveillance," says Bill Brown, a frequent critic of surveillance cameras and co-founder of the New York City-based Surveillance Camera Players, which has mapped thousands of cameras in cities across the country for the last 10 years, sometimes giving prankster performances in front of them. "People need to educate themselves about how the cameras work, how they don't work and where they are."

In a small low-lit room, Corporal Michael Morrow's eyes dart between nine monitors. The Tampa police officer uses a small joystick on a video editing board to zoom in and out, rotate the lens and switch between the 36 cameras placed in Centro Ybor and along Seventh and Eighth avenues. It's mid-afternoon on a weekday, and there are few pedestrians to watch, so Morrow looks for suspicious characters near delivery trucks and aggressive panhandlers by ATMs. To demonstrate the power of the camera, he rotates the camera 180 degrees and zooms in on a man holding a can of Diet Coke. You can read the warning label on it.

"If it can be seen by the public, we can view it," he says. Morrow, a 28-year veteran of TPD, has worked with the cameras ever since the surveillance system was introduced in 1996. That year, Tampa became the first American city to install a permanent surveillance camera system on public streets and the target of "Big Brother" accusations from civil liberties groups across the country. Tampa hit another milestone in 2002 when it added face-recognition software to all the cameras in an attempt to identify criminals with warrants, the extension of a pilot project at the 2001 Super Bowl held at Raymond James Stadium. The American Civil Liberties Union protested the system every step of the way, as did local privacy advocates. The city abandoned the face-recognition software in 2004, after failing to catch a single wanted person through the program but triggering several false alarms.

[...] The government owns more than just police cameras. At major intersections and interstates, you may have noticed another type of camera perched atop light signals or 80-foot poles. These traffic cameras, white-and-black dome-shaped devices resembling R2D2, are closed-circuit TV cameras operated by local, county or state departments of transportation.

Pinellas County's DOT operates 23 cameras along U.S. 19 and State Road 60. Twenty-five cameras dot Hillsborough County roads. The city of Tampa maintains 33 cameras, not counting the 23 on the Crosstown Expressway. FDOT has only 11 cameras on a 9-mile stretch of I-275 between the I-4 junction and Bearss Avenue. Those numbers will increase significantly during the next three years, according to officials at each agency.

"We'd like to have a camera every mile," says Bill Wilshire, who heads FDOT's Intelligent Transportation Program that calls for cameras to line I-275 through Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, sections of I-4 and I-75 and all major roadways and intersections in between.

Officials say the cameras help identify accidents, alert emergency authorities and help the public avoid long delays.

[...] Then why do local governments need high-tech cameras that can pan, tilt or zoom, wonders Brown, the surveillance critic.

"If you need to passively observe traffic flows at an intersection, you don't need a camera with pan, tilt or zoom -- you can use a fixed camera," he says by phone from his New York City home. "It exceeds what they're trying to do with it. If the Department of Transportation wants to see if there's a traffic jam at a certain intersection, that is OK, but it seems that they should be limited to what kinds of cameras they're using, especially if they can peer into automobiles."

Jacobs says the zoom allows them to see a half-mile down a roadway, helping them to gauge how far traffic is backed up in any one place. But he doesn't discount that as the cameras become more integrated with communication systems used by emergency personnel, the video could one day be used for enforcement.

"One of the complaints we get in terms of traffic control is not enough enforcement out in the street," Jacobs says, directing the camera operator to zoom in on cars at an intersection. "I suppose at some point in time it could be used for enforcement."

[...] Although local governments have hundreds of surveillance cameras trained on Tampa Bay streets, they are a small player in the world of surveillance. Private cameras make up the majority of surveillance in any area, from thousands of ATM cameras to Wal-Mart's parking-lot security cams, which reach to the street. But just because the cameras are privately owned doesn't mean they can't be used in the public sphere.

In one of the most common and accepted examples, police regularly subpoena private security tapes to investigate crimes.

"People are always willing to give us the tapes," TPD spokesperson Andrea Davis says. "And if they're not willing to give us the tape, we can still get it through the courts."

[...] Up until mid-2006, Tampa Electric maintained a webcam on top of its downtown building that had the ability to zoom in on individuals walking down the street. Spokesperson Rick Morera says the camera, up for nearly two years, also had recording abilities. TECO still maintains another webcam at its manatee-viewing center in Apollo Beach.

But Brown of Surveillance Camera Players has no love for webcams.

"That seems to be almost a reverse of 'Peeping Tom' statutes," he says. "A Peeping Tom cannot stand outside your window and photograph into your window, and the same thing seems to apply that someone shouldn't shoot out of a window indiscriminately for the purpose of entertaining people."

Brown's surveillance maps show only a small number of webcams. But he guesses there will be more as the technology's price lowers.

TPD's Morrow says if residents don't like surveillance cameras, they have a choice.

"Don't come down here [to Ybor City]," he says. "Don't go to the mall. Don't come to the bank. Don't go to the convention center. Don't go to the hospital. If you don't want to risk being on camera in a public street, then stay home."

Does this mean we are headed toward a society where personal privacy outside of the home is nonexistent? Where you can't go out for a beer with an old girlfriend or skip work without someone producing a tape of it? What does this mean for lawyers or reporters meeting with anonymous sources? How long will it take before all of our embarrassing moments in public end up on YouTube?

Citizens expecting reasonable levels of privacy will be disappointed. While critics like Brown liken surveillance cameras to "unreasonable search and seizure" prohibited by the Constitution, the courts have not felt the same way. In response, the Surveillance Camera Players try to spread a message: Allow people a reasonable expectation of privacy in public places under the Fourth Amendment. The group cites case law that states people are entitled to privacy, even in public places, if there is a "reasonable" expectation of privacy. Courts have already ruled that this "reasonable expectation of privacy" exists in phone booths, rock concerts and sports arenas. The SCP asks: "Why not on a sidewalk or public park?"

For those citizens not worried about the proliferation of cameras, Brown shows indignation.

"People who tend to say, 'I'm not doing anything wrong, why should I worry,' are liars," he says. "Or at least they are putting themselves on a moral plane above others. Even though these are public spaces, there are definitely areas in our cities where privacy is demanded."

Surveillance cameras afford some inarguable benefits in the areas of law enforcement and traffic control. And the idea that all of the cameras in a city could be linked together and used for nefarious purposes smacks of paranoia. But Brown says the prospect is not that far-fetched -- already police, often without even consulting a judge, can persuade private security camera operators to hand over tapes. TPD's Morrow says the Mayor's Office asks for video all the time for use in zoning controversies. In an increasingly connected world, who's to say traffic cams wouldn't face the same fate?

"This isn't just a nightmare of leftists; this is a nightmare of people left, right and center," Brown says. "The person who claims to be our president has removed the constitutional requirement for habeas corpus.

"If that is possible, 1984 is possible."

(Written by Alex Pickett, and published in the 7 February 2007 issue of Creative Loafing.)

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