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The eyes have it - for now

As surveillance cameras proliferate, a band of skeptics is questioning the social impact of all this watching.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2002


STANDING ON A TRAFFIC island in the middle of Times Square, Bill Brown might as well be on stage.

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TV cameras sweep the street to film lead-ins for news shows; security cameras protect store entrances; Web cameras focus out on the street so tourists can wave to friends and family back home via the Internet. Since the devices are often hidden or disguised, it takes several seconds for his small tour group to pick them out.

On a suspected police camera that hangs overhead, Mr. Brown slaps on a "You are being watched" sticker and defiantly reads the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause...."

Score a small and purely symbolic victory for one of the biggest underdog movements in America. Even as homeowners gleefully wire up their homes with inexpensive Web cams, even as employers put up closed-circuit TV and cities install surveillance equipment on everything from traffic intersections to school buses, a small group of skeptics is beginning to question the effects of all this technology.

Of course, after recent terrorist attacks and sniper shootings, those leading the backlash risk being drowned out by catcalls from an edgy public. On the other hand, they're tapping into deep pools of public suspicion about surveillance.

On the face of things, the new invasion of electronic eyes looks different from George Orwell's nightmare. It comes mostly from private sources, not government.

But skeptics' concern centers on fundamental social issues that sound all too Orwellian: the loss of privacy and the erosion of social trust.

They ask: Will you trust your neighbor in the 21st century? Or in putting up a security camera - just to make sure - are we somehow pulling out an essential thread of the social fabric?

"It seems that we indeed trust no one," writes William Staples in his recent book, "Everyday Surveillance." " 'Just put up the camera,' [authorities] say, and the problems will go away. In the case of the school bus, for example, once the camera is in place, no one has to bother teaching children why they should behave, it's enough just to get them to do it. This begs the question, how will they act when they are not under the gaze of the camera?"

No one knows how many surveillance cameras sweep public space in the United States, but experts agree the number is rising. Sales of closed-circuit TV systems grew faster last year than those of any other electronic security product, according to a dealer survey by Security Sales & Integration magazine in Torrance, Calif. Here in Times Square, perhaps the nation's most monitored public area, the number of cameras has more than tripled in four years, according to Brown, to 258 from 75.

Another reason for the expansion: falling costs. "I don't think people realize how easy it is - and cheap - to buy a camera, put it on the Internet, and watch," says Michael Naimark, another skeptic of video surveillance. "I am concerned that we're going to put up large-scale surveillance [systems] too quickly."

That's why, as a kind of civil-disobedience manual for the electronic age, he has published "How to ZAP a Camera" ( The Internet report details his experiments with lasers and cameras in Japan. Using something as simple as a laser pointer, he has temporarily disabled video cameras.

One unaffiliated website actually carries directions on ways to destroy and disable cameras. Another site ( from an art, technology, and activism collective called the Institute for Applied Autonomy allows users to find "routes of least surveillance" through Manhattan.

Who has access, who has control?

Mr. Naimark's point, however, is to force people to think more deeply about the social effects of security cameras and, peacefully, to register their protest. "It's not so much a case of surveillance cameras as who has access to them, who controls representation" of individuals, such as merging a photo of someone's face with a photo of someone else's body, he says. "I don't think there are simple answers."

Take traffic cameras, the kind that snap photos of cars running red lights. The technology captures license-plate numbers, and then motorists get tickets by mail. By some accounts, the system makes intersections safer.

In five of six California cities that installed the cameras, for example, the number of traffic accidents fell between 3 percent and 21 percent, according to a state auditor's report this summer. When California stopped using its traffic cameras, accidents at intersections went back up. That's why a rising number of jurisdictions are turning to the technology. Last month, Raleigh, N.C., approved deployment of cameras at 15 intersections.