A man prostrates himself on a busy sidewalk in midtown Manhattan, praying to a security camera while foot traffic swirls around him.
"I Want God to See Me," says a large cardboard sign propped up behind him.
The man is Bill Brown, and he's protesting the presence of a surveillance camera outside St. Patrick's Cathedral.
The number of security cameras in the Big Apple has doubled in the past three years to more than 5,000, according to folks like Brown who have been trying to keep tabs on their proliferation.
But while some privacy activists advocate donning Richard Nixon masks to befuddle camera operators, and others suggest blinding the electronic eye with a paintball gun, Brown protests the cameras by drawing attention to them.
He directs the Surveillance Camera Players, a group of anarchists and libertarians that stages avant-garde skits in the camera-lined streets of New York City.
"The cameras violate the Fourth Amendment protecting citizens from illegal search and seizure," said Brown, who has a Ph.D. in American literature and works as a proofreader.
Brown, 41, has a long history of political activism, including a stint as the New York coordinator of the Unabomber For President campaign, and has been arrested three times for protest-related activities.
He formed the SPC troupe in 1996 as a kind of in-joke among friends. In the beginning, the group acted out two-minute versions of George Orwell's 1984 or Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. These days, they play directly to the camera, walking slowly by the monitors with hand-printed messages.
"Just going to work" "Just going shopping" "Just getting something to eat" "Just going home now"
Other are more pointed: "We Know You Are Watching" or "Mind Your Own Business."
Bystanders who stop and gawk at the motley crew are sometimes convinced to join in the performance by flipping off the camera. Security guards tend to be less than amused.
"They think we're about to introduce anthrax into the water supply, and threaten to call the police," Brown said. "When the cops come they see we're not screaming, crazy protesters. We've actually earned a measure of respect from them and they have learned to leave us alone."
When the police show up, Brown whips out a pocket-size edition of the U.S. Constitution and reads them the Fourth Amendment. If they ask him for a permit, he cites the First Amendment. But if they tell him to move on, he concedes. The cops aren't the enemy, he insists, it's the people who run the cops.
Anyone can join Brown's troupe, as long as they're not "Communist, Socialist, Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyite or Maoist, an adherent to the ideologies of the Republican, Democratic or Reform Parties in the United States, or someone who is racist, sexist or homophobic" or a police informant, as his website stipulates.
"It's just a personal preference," he said. "They're a drag to hang out with." Brown's work has spawned another troupe in Arizona. And the spread of security cameras throughout Europe has also led to the creation of activist groups in Belgium, Germany, France and England.
While some privacy advocates say security cameras should be banned entirely, others simply want them to be regulated.
"My whole thing is that I want to see some rules with these cameras," said Mark Ghuneim, a corporate bigwig by day who maps out the location of Manhattan surveillance cameras in his spare time.
Visitors can report the installation of new cameras on his page or join the "map-your-block" campaign he's planning this summer to sweep neighborhoods for electronic eyes.
Ghuneim wants legislation passed establishing how the video footage is captured, used and stored and for a comprehensive study to be done to measure how effective the cameras are at deterring crime.
(Messages left with the NYPD's media relations office regarding the number and usefulness of city-operated cameras were not returned.)
Although the concept of anonymity is more subtle than that of privacy, the two notions are inexorably linked, said Bruce Umbaugh, a philosophy professor at Webster University.
"Anonymity is one of a number of important means of protecting personal privacy," said Umbaugh, adding that technologies such as smart cards, cookies and Carnivore are quickly making both concepts obsolete.
"We all have cause to be concerned about the move from relative anonymity to relative identifiability in the conduct of the ordinary business of our daily lives."
[By Julia Scheeres. Published by Wired News at 2:00 a.m. May. 3, 2001 PDT.]
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail Info@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998