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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.

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The cameras will not only deter red-light runners but also keep offenders honest, says Benson Kirkman, the city council's mayor pro tem. When a car ran a red light and sideswiped him 20 years ago, the driver initially apologized, then claimed the light was green once an eyewitness left the scene. With a camera, such high jinks wouldn't work, Mr. Kirkman argues.

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Nevertheless, the technology has run into controversy. A retired woman in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., got a $50 ticket for running a red light in Fayetteville, N.C., even though she'd never visited that city. San Diego suspended its program after residents complained the private contractor running the program was overzealous. The city has since started paying the contractor a flat fee, rather than a portion of each ticket generated.

But a hodgepodge of state laws is only beginning to catch up with the technology.

Washington State is now pushing to toughen its standards after the state supreme court ruled, to many people's astonishment, that videotaping up women's skirts in a mall did not violate the state voyeurism statute.

Even operators of approved video cameras may be using the technology to ogle women or capture images of actions that, while legal, are compromising, critics say.

"As things stand now there's no federal law against video cameras. There are no guidelines in place about what can be done with the images," complains Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "We run the risk of technology running amok and putting people's entire lives on film."

There are other sides to the equation, of course. For one thing, Big Brother isn't lurking around the corner. "We're not being watched by some conspiratorial government, we're watching each other," says Ken Goldberg, a professor of operational engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Beyond Webcams," a book on remotely guided robots. The surge in surveillance "definitely is going to erode some elements of privacy and increase elements of paranoia that go with that. On the other hand, having the control in the hands of private individuals may be a good thing."

Last month, Mr. Goldberg wired his own house with off-the-shelf security cameras. "Hopefully, it will act as a deterrent," he says. "Is that so bad? I don't think so."

Neither do many other people in these uncertain times. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, camera surveillance has been on the upswing around the world, according to a recent joint report by London-based Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

And public outcry has been muted.

In Britain, the developed world's leader in video surveillance, many residents have accepted, even welcomed, the technology. One study, catalogued by a crime-reduction charity in London called Nacro, found that even when Britons were fed a series of antisurveillance questions, they still supported cameras by 56 percent. When fed prosurveillance questions, support tipped 91 percent.

Diminishing returns on deterring crime

How much cameras really deter crime remains an open question. When the Scottish Centre for Criminology studied their effect on two communities, it found crime fell in the small town but rose in the large city (Glasgow). Nacro also found mixed results. The technology seems to have a lifecycle, the charity found, initially reducing crime but often with diminishing effect as time went on.

And they reinforce discrimination in Britain - a key concern among US civil-liberties groups. The Nacro study found the cameras disproportionately target men, particularly black men.

"They are indiscriminately surveilling people," says Brown, who - besides counting cameras and giving surveillance tours - also directs the New York Surveillance Camera Players. Since 1996, the group has staged various plays in front of surveillance cameras. Sometimes the actors exorcise the technology; sometimes they pray to it, all to raise the issue in a kind of dramatic protest.

Will the US follow in Britain's footsteps? As wired as this country is, it has nowhere near Britain's ratio of cameras to people. With less than one-quarter of America's population, Britain has an estimated 1.5 million surveillance cameras (some reports suggest 2.5 million or more). But antisurveillance activists are also realists.

"I can get the subject on the mainstream political agenda, but that's about it," says Brown. "In 50 years I would hope that the movement I am building has won," he adds. If it doesn't, "I fear that New York in 50 years would become a dystopia in a sci-fi way."