watching the watchers

It's a sunny Friday evening in central London. Three women and a man, dressed in black and carrying large white boards, meet outside Tottenham Court Road tube and then head off down Oxford Street. They weave through the crowd of weary shoppers and office workers, attracting bemused glances. Suddenly, they stop and point in the air. Others look up to see what all the fuss is about. It's a surveillance camera. Then the boards spring into action, silently announcing the day's events for the benefit of passersby, as well as those monitoring the cameras: THE SURVEILLANCE CAMERA PLAYERS PRESENT . . . IT'S OK, OFFICER; GOING SHOPPING; GETTING SOMETHING TO EAT; ON YOUR [sic] WAY HOME.

The messages on the boards are reinforced by drawings of stick people saluting a camera. The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) mimic the images with hands on temples; they repeat this performance at the next camera positioned just a few yards away.

People stop to watch. Busloads of passengers strain to read what's written on the boards. They smile and nudge their friends. They're curious. At the end, they're handed leaflets explaining what's going on. For this series of performances, the Surveillance Camera Players travelled all the way from New York to help alert Britons to the fact that they're one of the most highly surveilled nations in the world -- 1 million cameras watch 60 million people. By performing street plays adapted for the cameras, the group highlights the erosion of privacy and the targeting of people of color. The sight skits are street entertainment with a political twist.

The SCP's strategy has become especially relevant with the US government's intensified surveillance of the civilian population, especially immigrants, political refugees, and militant activists, in the wake of September 11. In fcat, according to Bill Brown, co-founder of [the] SCP, these events have propelled the debate around privacy versus security into the mainstream media.

"Now there is more of a context for what we do," he said. "People are more familiar with the issue we are raising -- privacy, the miliarization of the police, face recognition software."

The SCP is based in New York and, according to Brown, New Yorkers are "sympathetic to the idea of retaining privacy," and have been supportive of the group's work since the World Trade Center attacks. The SCP has increased its membership, mainly through their "walking tours," in which the group roams neighborhoods to point out surveillance cameras.

As surveillance issues have become more controversial, so have the group's activities -- at least in the eyes of the authorities. The SCP says that the number of visits to its website by various branches of the US military has increased to as many as 20 per day. The group's response is to document each visit by a military organization, ranging from the US Air Force and Navy to the Defense Information Systems Agency. By documenting the information, the SCP is applying a tactics of "watching the watchers" (or at least letting them know you know you are being watched), the same tactic used in their plays.

The prospect of new surveillance technologies, including face recognition software were already being tested on crowds at sports events, has only strengthened the need for such reverse scrutiny.

"The future of our group is unlimited," says Brown. "It would be nice to know there was an endpoint. But there's so much money going into surveillance technology that the SCP may have to continue forever."

Surveillance is also proliferating in other parts of the world, and the group is gaining recognition abroad. Cities in continental Europe are ideal places for performances, says Brown, because surveillance cameras are only just being introduced and the issues are fresh. Following its tour of the United Kingdom last year, the group also visited Germany, Spain and Austria, and an SCP-style group has formed in Bologna, Italy.

(Written by Megan Rowling and published in the Winter 2003 issue of Yes Magazine: A Journal of Positive Futures. An earlier version was published in Mao Magazine.)

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