number of surveillance cameras in Times Square
grows 500% in five years

In May 2000, we made our first map of the locations of surveillance cameras installed in public places in Times Square. Our intention was to double-check and update information that had originally been collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which had mapped out the locations of public surveillance cameras in all of Manhattan in November 1998. We were sure that the number of public surveillance cameras had increased. Unfortunately, we were right.

We felt that it was important to keep track because the public wasn't and still isn't being asked or even informed about the proliferation of surveillance cameras in public places. The installation of these cameras is rarely announced; the cameras, even the ones operated by the police, aren't labeled or accompanied by signs; and, quite intentionally, the cameras themselves don't look like surveillance cameras but like globe-shaped lamps, lights or ornaments. None of the local "authorities" -- neither the Mayor's Office, the New York Police Department (NYPD), the City Council, nor any of the various Borough Presidents and Community Boards -- are providing their constituents with relevant information on the subject. It appears that none of them are even keeping track of the numbers, locations and operators of the cameras being installed all over the city! According to the NYPD and the Times Square Business Improvement District, there aren't any surveillance cameras in public places in Times Square; at least, they aren't operating any -- or so they once claimed.

In 1998, the NYCLU located a total of 2,397 surveillance cameras in Manhattan; there were 75 in Times Square (the area south of 50th Street, north of 42d, west of Fifth Avenue and east of Eighth). In May 2000, we located and mapped out 131 surveillance cameras in the same area (we did not canvas all of Manhattan). In September 2002, we returned to Times Square and (starting from scratch) located, mapped out and counted the surveillance cameras in operation there. Our findings were alarming. Times Square contained (at least) 258 surveillance cameras, fully twice the number we spotted in 2000 and more than three times the number spotted by the NYCLU in 1998. In May 2005, we counted 604 of them.

That's a 500% increase in five years. If this rate is representative -- and, again, there is every reason to think so (cf. rates of increase in other parts of Manhattan) -- there are now approximately than 15,000 surveillance cameras in public places in Manhattan as a whole. On average, that's ten cameras per city block.

The terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center (WTC) on 11 September 2001 have surely played a role in the dramatic increase in the number of surveillance cameras in Times Square, which is perceived to be a potential target for future attacks. Take for example the new building on the west side of Seventh Avenue between 43rd and 42d Streets: though it is not yet occupied, it already has 19 very small digital cameras embedded in its exterior walls. These cameras are no after-thought; they are clearly part of the original design.

But note well that the number of police surveillance cameras in Times Square has hardly increased since 1998: there were nine and now there are a dozen. Given the fact that each of these cameras can zoom in and see a person clearly from more than 15 blocks away, twelve police cameras is a lot for Times Square. The police haven't added many new cameras because they surely know that -- especially those that aren't labeled or accompanied by signs -- these cameras are completely useless from the standpoint of law enforcement. They do not deter or prevent crimes from taking place; at best, they simply view or record crimes as they are taking place. For example: though there were hundreds and hundreds of surveillance cameras in operation at the World Trade Center, and though many of them were installed after 1993 by professional spies (the FBI and the CIA), none of these cameras did anything to prevent, stop or even minimize the severity of the 11 September 2001 attacks. All these cameras did was witness their own destruction; not even the tapes survived.

Surely the police also know that the best and perhaps the only way to make Times Square better protected against potential terrorist attacks -- which are most likely to come in the form of bombs carried by cars or trucks -- is to prohibit all automobiles and turn Times Square into a giant pedestrian zone. It's easy to see that nearly everyone would be happy happy happy with this arrangement: the trees, the residents, the tourists, even the so-called local businesses (Starbucks, McDonalds, Disney, MTV, Virgin Megastore, et al.).

If the number of surveillance cameras in Times Square has dramatically increased over the last five years, it is because more and more private companies are putting up more and more cameras. The inability of these cameras to deter or prevent crime is no obstacle at all to private companies or the security firms that they've hired. Private companies don't care if crimes take place on their premises, provided that they have the insurance to cover their loses. And getting insurance (of all kinds) is much easier when you've installed surveillance cameras, because they can be used to cover a very broad range of risks, including those associated with fires and explosions, slip-and-fall accidents, theft by employees, workplace sabotage, strikes, etc. etc.

This pattern is consistent with what we've observed as we've mapped out other parts of Manhattan. In neighborhoods in which there is little property worth insuring (Harlem and the Lower East Side, for example), there are comparably few privately operated surveillance cameras, despite the fact that these precise areas are said to have "a crime problem" and thus a need for surveillance cameras. In neighborhoods in which there is little crime but a lot of insurable property (for example, Greenwich Village and Midtown Manhattan), there are cameras everywhere.

But one should take care not to find dubious comfort in the idea that "It's OK, because it's private companies watching us, and not the police." Private companies, especially the big corporate players who have recently moved into Times Square, have "political agendas" of their own. As a matter of fact, some of these companies are so big and so defensive that they literally have their own police forces. In England, which is easily the most surveilled country in the world -- and the model for what's going on in America -- there is no distinction between private and police surveillance. The two have been combined into an immense integrated network of cameras. This arrangement works for the police because it allows them to keep their construction costs down, and for the private security firms because it allows them to cut down on the number of watchers they have to employ.

This kind of integration has just started in the United States: in Washington, DC, the police are reported to be experimenting with "tapping into" existing surveillance systems operated by private security firms as well as building new systems of their own. And so it isn't too late for us to start fighting (again) against the use of surveillance cameras in public, but we haven't any time to waste.

-- the New York Surveillance Camera Players
Originally posted: 4 September 2002. Updated 7 June 2003. Updated again on 16 May 2005.

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