Big Brother's Spin Doctors

On 2 May 2002, The New York Post published a slick defense of the use of surveillance cameras in public places written by William D. Eggers and Eve Tushnet of the Manhattan Institute, a high-profile right-wing think-tank. Entitled "Big Brother's Eyes" and printed on The Post's opinion page, this defense appeared on the very day that the tabloid newspaper thanked the Institute for giving it an award. Clearly the intention was to give Eggers and Tushnet's piece as much attention as possible.

Ironically, unlike the cameras they are defending, Eggers and Tushnet have a very limited field of vision. Though the vast majority of public surveillance cameras are installed and operated by private companies, Eggers and Tushnet's piece focuses exclusively on what they call "government cameras." Though "government cameras" should include surveillance cameras operated by federal law enforcement authorities, intelligence agencies and the U.S. military, Eggers and Tushnet are for some reason only interested in those operated by local police departments.

Citing the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the authors report that "fully 80 percent of America's 19,000 police departments are already using [surveillance cameras]," including, of course, the New York Police Department. "We can live with more [police surveillance cameras]," Eggers and Tushnet write, "if we act now to safeguard privacy against potential governmental [sic] abuses." Once again, the focus is very, very limited. Sure, "we" can live with -- that is to say, tolerate -- even more cameras, but why would we want to? Why do we have to? Eggers and Tushnet don't say, perhaps because the answers are both obvious and potentially embarassing to certain parties acting in collusion (the companies that make, install and/or operate the cameras and/or the computer software that is used to "enhance" their performance; the insurance companies that give discounts on rates covering fires, accidents and theft, if cameras are installed and constantly upgraded, especially by the companies in which the insurance companies themselves have invested heavily; and the police chiefs, tabloid newspapers and right-wing think-tanks -- investors, one and all -- that keep the public constantly terrified of "crime" and "terrorism").

Eggers and Tushnet have done their homework. They are familiar with some of the arguments commonly advanced against the use of video surveillance by police officers, and it shows in their knowing references to "a bored man who's zooming in on [a woman's] chest," to oppressed groups such as "gay couples, political protestors and swarthy-looking men," and to "the 1989 Tianenmen Square demonstrations," at which "student protestors were identified with surveillance cameras that purportedly had been installed to monitor [automobile] traffic." Over-confident and not as clever as they think they are, Eggers and Tushnet try to do two things at once -- acknowledge that there is in fact a growing opposition to surveillance cameras in America and misrepresent that opposition -- in the following fragmented sentence:

Many civil libertarians insist that the only way to protect privacy is through prohibition: Tear down the cameras. Ban government [sic] from using face-recognition and other biometric technologies.

But the facts of the matter are that all too few "civil libertarians" (the New York Surveillance Camera Players among them) want to "tear down the cameras" and ban the use of all biometric systems in public places; and that the vast majority of privacy-rights advocates want the federal and/or state government(s) to pass laws that would regulate and control the use of these technologies, not ban them.

Not surprisingly, Eggers and Tushnet have their own proposals, which, if implemented, would allow "us" to "reap the benefits of these technologies without worrying about waking up in '1984,' 'Brazil,' or 'Enemy of the State.'" (Let us note in passing how completely out-of-touch with reality these "experts" are: racial profiling, police brutality and governmental abuse of authority are things brought to you, if and when you want to experience them, by Hollywood dreamweavers, not imposed upon you, whether you like it or not, every single day by professional sadists in uniforms.) Elsewhere in their defense of police surveillance cameras, Eggers and Tushnet write: "There should also be sanctions -- legally and in the court of public opinion -- for politicians, cops or anyone else who breaks these rules." But the authors don't advance any ideas as to how their proposals might be implemented or who might be tasked with implementing and enforcing them. Surely Eggers and Tushnet know that only the state and federal governments have the authority to compel America's police departments to adopt guidelines for the use of video surveillance. And so Eggers and Tushnet's argument isn't really with the radicals who want biometrics banned and the cameras taken down, but with their fellow moderates, with those who happen to advance regulatory proposals that are at variance with the agenda of the Manhattan Institute. (In this context, note well that three of the four proposals advanced by Eggers and Tushnet -- "Limit how long the information is kept," "Watch the watchers" and "Inform the Public" -- would be perfectly acceptable to most moderate civil libertarians.)

Before examining these proposals, let's look at Eggers and Tushnet's attempts to rebut the ban-it-all position.

Sounds good, but it won't work. For one thing, the spycams are already here [...] And Congress is highly unlikely to pass a law forcing every city in the country to take down their cameras.

What's more, the 'ban everything' approach ignores the technologies' plain benefits. Any woman who's had to walk through a deserted parking garage to her car knows why many people might welcome cameras.

With many advances ahead, computer-linked surveillance cameras can already identify crimes as they occur, reduce false arrests and convictions and provide much better evidence than notoriously unreliable witness testimony. Linked to biometric databases, the cameras can help prevent fraud, find a lost child, and keep terrorists out of airports and pedophiles out of schools.

The "logic" here is specious: just because "the spycams are already here" does not mean that they "aren't going away," as Eggers and Tushnet claim elsewhere in their article. Police surveillance cameras were installed in Times Square in the late 1960s, but were taken down because they were rightly judged to be cost-ineffective: in 22 months of continuous operation, they led to the arrest of only 10 people, all for minor infractions. Judging by the contents of the crime-obsessed New York Post, which has never run a story in which a single one of the dozens of "spycams" installed by Mayor Giuliani in the 1990s has led to the arrest and conviction of a single person who has committed a serious crime (such as the rape of a woman in a deserted parking garage), the police surveillance cameras of today are just as cost-ineffective as those in operation 30 years ago, despite the advances in technology.

Though it would indeed be a bad bet to wager that Congress is going to "pass a law forcing every city in the country to take down their cameras," it seems inappropriate that Eggers and Tushnet should phrase the issue in such speculative terms. This is America: Congress will do whatever We, the People, tell it to do. And if We, the People, want the same laws that cover audio surveillance to be extended to cover video surveillance -- at the moment, they don't, which is why it isn't illegal for the police (or private companies, for that matter) to operate video surveillance systems without any oversight whatsoever -- then Congress would have no choice but to pass such a law, because every single unmarked police surveillance camera in America would be unconstitutional. (Note well that, though Eggers and Tushnet are exclusively concerned with "government cameras," they seem totally unfamiliar with the provisions of the Fourth Amendment, under which "unreasonable searches and seizures" of our "persons, houses, papers and effects" -- whether these searches be physical or televisual -- are or should obviously be prohibited.)

Eggers and Tushnet's unwavering belief in and advocacy of "computer-linked surveillance cameras" is fairly unusual these days. Over the course of the last year, several prominent right-wing groups and individuals, including the Law Enforecement Association of America and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (a Republican from Texas), have strongly condemned computerized surveillance cameras. And, in Tampa Bay, Florida -- where computerized surveillance cameras were first used (without telling anyone) at the 2001 Super Bowl and later (amidst much hoopla and high hopes) on the streets of Ybor City -- the police disconnected the system back in August 2001 because it was even more unreliable than witness testimony: the computerized cameras mistook men for women and vice versa, etc etc.

Indeed, the only people these days who are as fervent as Eggers and Tushnet in their belief in the value of face recognition software are the companies that make it (two of the most prominent are Viisage and Visionics). "Let machines do the watching," Eggers and Tushnet proclaim at the top of their list of proposals, as if "reducing human involvement and maximizing that of machines can help prevent" abuses from occurring, rather making them far more likely, more systematic in scope and harder to detect.

One can't help wondering how Eggers and Tushnet would reconcile the obvious contradiction between two of their proposals, i.e., "Watch the watchers" and "Let machines do the watching." Why should the watchers be watched if they have been replaced by machines? Wouldn't it be a massive waste of money to have computer-linked surveillance cameras watching the performance of still other computer-linked surveillance cameras? Other than making a lot of money for Visionics or Viisage, what would be the point?

But maybe that is the point, the whole point of Eggers and Tushnet's defense of surveillance cameras. These "experts" aren't defending surveillance cameras, but helping to market face recognition software.

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