One in the Eye for Big Brother

Surveillance cameras are so ubiquitous, we take them for granted. But some activists say monitoring public places needs a second look

By Jane Black

Anyone in Manhattan's financial district last week may have noticed a dozen or so twentysomethings sweeping the area armed with clipboards and wireless handheld computers. They weren't market researchers. Rather, it was a troupe of techno-warriors from the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA) scouting and mapping the locations of surveillance cameras. Their goal: to create a digital map of electronic eyes to let New Yorkers instantly discover what the group calls "the path of least surveillance."

For example, to get from the corner of Wall and Water streets to the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street in the Financial District, the shortest path is a half mile. In that distance, a pedestrian will be recorded by an astonishing 21 cameras. By using the group's I See software program, I know that I can take a 1.62-mile route and entirely avoid being caught on film. The IAA is also working on a wireless application for PDAs that will let privacy activists report newly discovered cameras directly to the database.

Most people (including me) won't bother to walk three times the distance just to avoid the camera positioned strategically above the door of a bank. And the new wireless software, which is being developed after-hours by a ragtag group of volunteers, is still buggy. But the project illuminates how rampant -- and unchecked -- surveillance cameras are in New York and around the country. It also demonstrates how technology can be used to defend privacy, rather than erode it.


  Indeed, without groups like the IAA, the average person might never notice the ever-increasing number of surveillance cameras, which tend to positioned at least 10 feet off the ground. And new, so-called dome cameras that look like art deco street lamps are able to zoom in and out on suspicious persons. Bill Brown, a privacy activist who has been mapping surveillance cameras in New York for the last two years, estimates that there are at least 10,000 cameras in Manhattan -- an average of six per square block. On just one short strip of Wall Street I found 10 cameras recording passersby.

That's peanuts compared to some other metropolitan cities. In London, where the government began installing cameras in the mid-1980s to deter IRA terrorists, there are 10,000 cameras in the one-square mile "City of London" financial district alone. Across Britain, there are 2.5 million cameras. By some estimates, Londoners are caught on film 300 times per day.

That's what privacy advocates, including the IAA, want to avoid in the U.S. Since Sept. 11, fears of terrorism and ever-cheaper cameras have prompted government officials and private corporations to ramp up video surveillance in public spaces. In Washington, for example, the police are in the process of setting up a centralized surveillance center where officers will be able to view video from schools, neighborhoods, Metro stations, and prominent buildings around the city.


  To stem the rise of surveillance -- or at least keep it in check -- the IAA works to "invert traditional power relationships," putting technology into the hands of activists. To date, their efforts have been eccentric, to say the least. In 2000, the IAA built a robot called Little Brother, which looked remarkably similar to the mechanical maid in the The Jetsons. Instead of cooking and cleaning, however, Little Brother was used to distribute subversive literature and pamphlets on street corners. The IAA also built a radio-controlled robot called Graffiti Writer, which can travel at 10 mph as it spray-paints activist messages ("Voting is futile" is a recent favorite) on city streets.

Such projects are more likely to pique curiosity than change government or corporate policies. And that's where more established organizations come into play. In April, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., organized a march to protest new surveillance cameras on the Washington Mall. Its leaders have provided hours of Congressional testimony in which they argued that video surveillance is ineffective. Indeed, experiments at Sandia National Laboratories 20 years ago for the U.S. Department of Energy revealed that even the most well-intentioned security guard cannot pay sufficient attention for more than 20 minutes.

Surveillance is also susceptible to abuse. According to a 1997 sociological study conducted at the University of Hull, black people were watched between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more often than one would expect, based on the percentage they represent of the overall population. Experts also found that camera operators, mostly male and very bored, frequently use cameras to voyeuristically spy on women.


  EPIC and other lobby groups have put forth a powerful case to legislators and government officials. But grassroots efforts like the IAA's are showing citizens simple ways they can protect privacy. Advocate Bill Brown gives free weekly walking tours of Manhattan that teach New Yorkers to map the types and locations of city surveillance cameras. Project Witness, a New York nonprofit backed by rock star Peter Gabriel, among others, buys up old video cameras and distributes them to human-rights activists in the Third World. So far, activists in 50 countries have recorded more than 700 hours of video documenting human-rights abuses.

Though unconventional, the IAA's work is important. Drawing an analogy from the body's immune system, privacy advocate David Brin calls them "social T-cells," alerting society to new threats and protecting it from policy mistakes. (See BW Online, 6/5/01, "Privacy vs. Security: A Bogus Debate") Their message: Put technology to work to increase privacy. We'd be well advised to heed the warning.

Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column

Edited by Thane Peterson

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