Routes of Least Surveillance

It's not the journey or the destination; it's the getting there unseen that counts. Or so goes the thinking behind a new mapping utility created by civil libertarians to guide New Yorkers through Manhattan along routes with the fewest surveillance cameras.

It's like Mapquest for dissidents and paranoiacs, or for those simply creeped out by the feeling of being watched, constantly, by countless mechanical eyes.

The service, called iSee, was created by The Institute for Applied Autonomy, a group of technologists, and The New York Surveillance Camera Project, an offshoot of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The interactive, Web-based map catalogs most of the 2,400 cameras filming public space in the city, including cameras on buildings, ATMs and traffic lights.

Users log on to the iSee website, select a point of departure and a destination, and a dotted line sketches a route around closed-circuit cameras marked as red boxes. Camera coverage is so dense that the island of Manhattan looks like a red chili pepper.

"We've designed iSee to be useful to a wide range of ordinary people," said an IAA operative who declined to be identified. "The demonstrated tendency of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) operators to single out ethnic minorities for observation and to voyeuristically focus on women's breasts and buttocks provides the majority of the population ample legitimate reasons to avoid public surveillance cameras."

The IAA operative also noted the proliferation of spy-cam websites, and increasing commercial incentives for distributing CCTV footage to reality-based media shows like Cops and America's Funniest Home Videos.

IAA plans to expand iSee to cover Seattle, Chicago and perhaps London, which, after years of being plagued by terrorism, is one of the most camera-saturated cities in the world [...]

But iSee is not just a tool for stealthy troublemakers. One can also view it as an art project designed to draw attention to the privacy issues surrounding ubiquitous cameras. At a time when government is pushing for more watchfulness and fewer civil-rights safeguards, iSee's creators hope to shock lawmakers into recognizing that citizens already feel violated.

"A growing number of people are concerned by the lack of legislative oversight of CCTV operations," said the IAA operative. "The advent of sophisticated face-recognition technologies are further reasons to use iSee. They will allow companies, private investigators, and journalists to browse video databases for footage of spouses, employees, and neighbors engaged in perfectly legal, but nonetheless private acts like attending job interviews and psychiatric appointments."

The iSee project has been in development for a year and began construction in earnest during the summer. Before it was launched, another group, the Surveillance Camera Players, was giving walking tours to illustrate a similar point.

However, the Ruckus Society, a Berkeley-based environmental and human rights organization that helps train activists, among other things, isn't keen on iSee.

"I'm hard pressed to come up with situation where I would rely on that data," said technical organizer Allen Gunn. He said the site could give users a false sense of security: Hidden and fake cameras aren't accounted for, nor are camera ranges, resolution, positions or direction. Gunn added that maintaining an accurate database may prove prohibitively costly and difficult.

Besides, for most agitators, the point is to be seen.

"The Ruckus philosophy is one of direct action, not anonymity," Gunn said. "We believe in strength in numbers. Putting people on the street has the value of putting faith in the public. That's why we're not at all into faceless things like hacktivism. There's a profound eloquence to having thousands of people in front of the White House that you can never get from a thousand e-mails or people clicking a website."

Individually, however, Gunn envisions a place for iSee. "It's analogous to using PGP all the time. I don't know who's bothering to read my e-mail, but it has symbolic value as a statement of the right to privacy."

Written by Erik Baard and published in the 28 November 2001 edition of Wired News.

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