Protesting the Big Brother Lens, Little Brother Turns an Eye Blind

SAN FRANCISCO - Confronted with the unblinking eyes of surveillance cameras, Michael Naimark believes he can hide in plain sight with the aid of a $1 laser pointer.

Mr. Naimark, a Silicon Valley artist and technologist, decided to try turning the tables on what he saw as the potential for Big Brother surveillance after the Sept. 11 attacks.

His is a Little Brother response: using inexpensive laser pointers to temporarily blind those omnipresent electronic eyes. He plans to post his 13-page, single-spaced treatise on the subject this week on his Web site,

"The question 'if a camera's aimed at me can I not be in the image?' became a haunting obsession," he said. "The answer is yes."

But in these security-conscious times, one person's civil liberties can be another's shortsighted anarchy.

"It's possible that Harry Potter's invisibility cloak may not be viewed as a good thing for the community," said Kevin Kelly, an editor at Wired magazine. "We have laws prohibiting jamming police radar. It will be interesting to see if camera-jamming becomes illegal."

Nonetheless, Mr. Naimark's obsession is emblematic of a national debate that is growing as video cameras proliferate - a proliferation that results both from falling monitoring costs, made possible by the Internet, and increasing safety concerns in the face of crime and terrorism [...]

The rush to surveillance in the wake of Sept. 11 is revitalizing a growing group of civil liberties activists who, like Mr. Naimark, are determined to limit the spread of networks of inexpensive video cameras that are appearing in virtually all public spaces.

In New York City, the Surveillance Camera Players, a guerrilla theatre troupe, is placing hand-drawn maps of video camera locations on the Internet and staging brief politically inspired performances in front of the cameras.

The group was co-founded by Bill Brown, an American literature scholar, who said the troupe was sympathetic to Mr. Naimark's opposition to the ubiquitous video eyes but took a different tack, highlighting the emerging surveillance world through a series of street parodies.

"His methods are quite different from ours," Mr. Brown said. "We're philosophical anarchists. We never engage in illegal activity, but we believe the greatest weakness of those who operate the surveillance systems is that they require secrecy."

One person who said he occasionally sees Mr. Brown's group perform is Brian Curry, the chief executive and founder of EarthCam, based in New York City, which makes surveillance camera systems and operates a network of seven cameras aimed at Times Square that constantly beam video images over the Internet.

His Web site,, attracts 50,000 to 75,000 visitors each day, Mr. Curry said, and he frequently sees people standing in Times Square waving at his cameras while they talk on their cellphones.

"We're offering a window on the world that is very much like sitting in a restaurant and looking out on the street," he said. "To try to inhibit this by saying it represents a brave new society where people are losing their privacy is far-fetched" [...]

That is not the view of a group of privacy advocates in Washington, who are suing the Metropolitan Police Department under the Freedom of Information Act to force disclosure of technical information about a network of video cameras that has been established in the city.

The value of video cameras to improve safety and detect terrorists has been greatly overrated, according to Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington.

Like the Surveillance Camera Players, Mr. Rotenberg said he worries that while Internet-viewable cameras might offer entertainment, there are other networks of private and law enforcement cameras that collect information secretly on behalf of the government.

"There has been a reduction in privacy and there has been an expansion in government secrecy," he said. "We give up our privacy, but we don't gain openness in exchange" [...]

(Written by John Markoff and published in the 6 October 2002 issue of The New York Times.)

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