Homeland Scrutiny

In the days following the terrorist attacks last September, national policies were ushered in that have left many Americans feeling anxious -- not with the fear of subsequent terrorist strikes, but with the prospect of a future in which our every move is watched, Big Brother-like, due to the spread of surveillance technology. And living in a city where at least 5,000 public cameras are already capturing our actions, New Yorkers are bound to be acutely affected by this potential loss of liberty [...]

Bill Brown, head of the Surveillance Camera Players, a local performance-art advocay group dedicated to exposing public0monitoring devices, likens this unfettered surveillance and information-gathering to be the "paranoia of the Panopticon," the legendary all-seeing eye that would keep society in a constant state of anziety for fear of being detected by invisible, omnipresent authorities. The result: A self-censoring society, which may be welcome in some parts of the world but not so here in New York.

New Yorkers had been publicly observed without their knowledge long before last September. While the NYPD maintains that only two Manhattan locales are kept under the watchful eye of its video cameras -- Washington Square Park and the Lillian Wald housing complex on Avenue D -- Brown contends that NYPD monitoring devices operate all over the borough, from sophisticated cameras that look like streetlights to helicopters overhead and wireless units that transmit images via microwave.

He should know. A former professor of literature, Brown has made it his life's work to chart the expansion of public surveillance in New York City. In addition to his affiliation with the Camera Players, with whom he puts on silent shows in the hopes of drawing the attention of passersby to public cameras, Brown organizes weekly waliking tours of heavily monitored Manhattan neighborhoods. Taking note of each camera he encounters, Brown documents which ones are run by the NYPD, by businesses or universities, or by entertainment-oriented Webcam operators. For every law-enforcement surveillance camera on the streets of New York, he claims, at least nine more operated by private forms point, illegally, into public areas. By Brown's estimate, the actual number of public cameras in Manhattan could be as high as 10,000.

The city's terror in the wake of September 11 was excuriating for Brown -- only after two days of intense self-reflection, he says, did he decide to continue with the Players. Nonetheless, he's dispirited by the nature of activism in the post-9/11 world, as many of his would-be allies are reluctant to voice criticism that might be viewed as unpatriotic. Though the Players have regularly performed under the watchful eyes of live officers as well as those assigned to the surveillance monitors, the troupe is generally left alone to engage pedestrians -- or not. "It's incumbent on society to answer back to surveillance," Brown says. "I'm not sure plays are the appropriate response, but all we have are plays and signs. The police have everything else" [...]

(Written by Angela Gunn and published in the September 5-12, 2002, issue of Time Out New York.)

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NY Surveillance Camera Players