Watchers' Watcher Warns of Surveillance

Bill Brown heaved his shoulders into a shrug, lifted his palms upward and, gazing into a well-disguised overhead security camera, echoed Robert De Niro in the movie Taxi Driver: "You lookin' at me?" In his view, that's how New Yorkers would respond to a camera if they knew it was watching them. So he's spreading the word.

Brown, 41, a proofreader by profession, has spent his Sundays for the past two years leading free Surveillance Camera Walking Tours in eight city neighborhoods, including the City Hall area. By his estimate, more than 10,000 remote eyes now monitor Manhattan streets, a three-fold increase since 1998. Twenty-eight are located in the area bordered by Chambers, Vesey, Broadway and Centre, 19 of them police-operated. Pretty much any place you stand near City Hall, says Brown, you can be seen by a police camera.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Brown handed out maps of cameras in the vicinity to some 15 people on his tour. "Why do we like New York?" he asked rhetorically. "Because the crowds afford us a degree of privacy and anonymity. Surveillance cameras destroy that principle, especially when we don't know they're there."

Brown pointed to a globe-shaped fixture attached to a streetlight on Broadway at Warren Street. It looks like a lamp, he said, but, it's a police video camera that can see 360 degrees, up to a mile away, and has a magnification factor of 16. "It can count the change in your palm." The camera, he noted, is one of four on Broadway on the west side of City Hall Park.

Pervasive as the cameras are, Brown discounted the efficacy of video surveillance in curbing terrorism. "There were so many cameras on the World Trade Center, I couldn't map them," he said. With the panache of a well-practiced college lecturer, Brown pointed out examples of surveillance-camera technology, including one high up on a pole and partly obscured by leaves, in the northeast corner of City Hall Park. Some, such as two located in the Washington Mutual Bank at Chambers and Broadway, appeared to be monitoring private space, but Brown said they can see people on the street.

"We're looking at the militarization of civilian society," he said. The secret nature of public surveillance irks Brown, whose Surveillance Camera Players perform guerilla theater in front of security cameras, acting out original plays or scenes from books such as Orwell's "1984."

The increasing sophistication of surveillance technology allows law enforcement to invade our privacy without our knowledge or consent, Brown asserts, while democracy requires informed consent. One day, he imagines, we may be watched by private and public cameras that use biometric technology to match our images against a databank of individuals.

At the end of the tour, at Warren and Broadway, Brown passed around a small telescope with a magnification power typical of the cameras around City Hall Park. Through it, we could see into windows in Battery Park City.

"My friends used to call me paranoid," he said. "Nobody says that anymore."

(Written by Barbara Aria and published in the September 2003 issue of The Tribeca Tribune.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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