Surveillance & The City

If you live in a major city in the US or UK, there is a very likely chance that you are being surveilled by video cameras, purportedly for your own safety. And they do seem like a good idea at first glance -- that way, one cop can watch six or seven different locations, right? However, surveillance cameras have proven to be at best, minimally effective for preventing crime, and comes at too high a price. As supposedly free citizens, the public has the right not to be scrutinized. Surveillance cameras are only the first step in the government's attempts to keep track of its citizens.

Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth century philosopher wrote that the ideal prison would be one in which the prisoner could be watched at any given moment without the prisoner's knowledge. Since the prisoner wouldn't know if he or she were being watched, they would assume they were under constant surveillance, and would behave accordingly. People in today's society behave similarly -- they act lawfully in case an unseen camera is watching.

Though surveillance cameras were erected in the United States first (the first was in Hoboken, NJ in 1966 and yielded only two arrests in two years, and the second, in Mt. Vernon, NY produced none), the craze really started in the United Kingdom. This was originally due to the incredible rate of terrorism that the US has never been through. In the UK, there are over three hundred jurisdictions that use surveillance cameras. In all fairness, areas being surveilled are at least clearly marked. However, there is no control as to who obtains the footage on these tapes. Two videos were released, "Caught in the Act" and its sequel, which had footage taken from cameras designed to protect the public.

There is some legislation in Britain attempting to protect the public from having their rights violated. However, these policies in the works apparently don't extend to teenagers, and their efforts to crack down on underage smoking. Pictures are taken of teens smoking in public. Soon after, the smoker is asked for identification, supposedly as a routine check. The officer then takes down the smoker's information and notifies his or her parents. Can you imagine? Not only would my parents have killed me for smoking, having an officer tell them that would have been the end of the world.

Racial profiling is almost a given among camera operators. An operator in Burnley, UK told a Grenada reporter that he could tell who was likely to commit a crime, simply by looking at a subject. In a study by Hawaii University, researchers discovered that operators tended to discriminate against blacks, gays, minorities, and the young. Big surprise.

There have been almost no concrete laws, either for or against, the use of surveillance cameras in public places. The closest thing is a vaguely worded law that allows law enforcement to use video surveillance to collect information for public safety purposes. Several courts have recognized that video surveillance is the most mentally disconcerting forms of monitoring performed by the government, and that it "raises the specter of the Orweillian state."

Law enforcement in California have recently been spotted with hand-held video cameras outside police vans taping protests. Individuals are much less likely to protest, or voice their opinion, or even hold hands with members of the same sex if they are not quite out of the closet if they think they are being watched. Who knows whose hands these tapes could fall into? A couple is less likely to kiss on a park bench if they think that they will be watched with unseen eyes. The potential for surveillance camera abuse is overwhelming. The late Supreme Court Justice Wm. J. Brennan said in 1963, "?electronic surveillance makes the police omniscient, and police omniscience is one of the most effective tools of tyranny."

According to social psychiatrists, being surveyed is unconsciously associated with criminality. Everyone looks guilty on those black and white tapes. It's a moving mug shot. Future generations will be born into a society in which they see no alternative but to comply with the law. It's the perfect way to breed a complacent society.

One reason that the prevalence of cameras is especially offensive is that they don't actually stop criminals. They simply aid in their identification after the act. People argue that the cameras work just as effectively as any beat cop does. I don't know about you, but if I think if I'm about to be mugged, I'd rather have a cop to run to than a camera attached to a light post. Besides, it only helps after the damage has already been done.

Over sixty cities in the US use surveillance cameras as a public safety measure, though most information about their effectiveness has been anecdotal. Hollywood, CA has a frightening use for its cameras. If someone drives through a "known" drug-infested neighborhood, his or her license plate is photographed. The driver's address is then pulled from DMV records; and a postcard it sent to his house, informing him or her (and whoever else glances at the card) that their car was spotted in a known drug area.

In 1997 Mayor Guiliani and the NYPD started a campaign of installing surveillance cameras in public housing. After that, they installed cameras in Washington Square Park, put up to discourage the small scale drug dealing on the south side of the park. The result is that the pot dealers left, but now crack dealers hang around right outside the vicinity of the camera's eyes.

There are currently 2,397 visible cameras in Manhattan alone. This isn't even counting the many "strategically placed" cameras such as the ones in between ads in the bus shelters that run along Central Park West. The average New Yorker is photographed on surveillance cameras at least twenty times a day. During the early eighties, when crime was notoriously rampant in Times Square, police installed a surveillance camera in the area. It was up for only two years and only resulted in ten arrests.

There is a backlash growing against surveillance cameras. The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), which had its first performance in 1996, creatively protests the prevalence of surveillance cameras. The SCP, founded by Art Toad, uses subversive tactics to protest cameras. The method, known as guerrilla programming, is easy. A group gets together, creates a piece about anything at all, and performs it in front of a surveillance camera. The point is to point out the absurdity of a society in which people are surveilled that have been brought up to believe in a recorded image before they believe their own eyes.

The first performance was on 10 December, 1996 in the Astor Place train station on the IRT line. The group performed Jarry's "Ubu Roi" silently for the cameras. The next performance was on Election Day, 1997, at the Fourteenth Street subway line, in which the troupe performed "1984." Performers, when not on camera, handed out flyers that read "Re-elect Big Brother." The most recent performance by the SCP was on 5 December, 2000. During the performances, transit police usually watch them on the token booth monitors.

The idea of being watched Big Brother-style seems like something out of a paranoid sci-fi movie, but it's real. The violations of rights that go along with these inefficient law enforcement tools are too much to trade in. And the more one accepts the government encroachment upon individual's rights, the less free we will each be.

Written by Kimberly Warner-Cohen and published by YCraze in December 2000.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

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