On a crisp Sunday afternoon in New York City, a small crowd of mostly international students huddled together at the corner of Warren and Broadway near a gated entrance to City Hall. A few held cameras and one carried a bulky camcorder. But this was no ordinary walking tour. The group had come not to view landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street or the New York Stock Exchange but to discover just how many surveillance cameras government authorities had installed.
“We’re ultimately trying to get people to think about what kind of society they want to live in,” said 49-year-old privacy activist and tour guide Bill Brown. “There used to be an America that would say ‘Mind your own business!’ And now that’s changed so much that every time you get on the subway you hear: ‘If you see something, say something.’ ” Since 2000, Brown has given an estimated 3,000 people free walking tours of surveillance cameras in neighborhoods around New York City, one of many tools Brown has used to raise awareness about the disappearance of privacy.
“The essence of humanity is opaque,” said Brown. “We are mysteries to ourselves. The idea that a camera can look at my face and render my thoughts transparent is both false and dangerous.” In the 1990s, Brown helped out as a volunteer at now-defunct Blackout Books, a Lower East Side bookstore and anarchist hangout. After managing the bookstore’s website for a while, Brown noticed that several government agencies visited the site frequently. This oddity prompted him to make a Freedom of Information Act request on himself. While waiting for the response, he founded an activist theatrical company, Surveillance Camera Players. In 1997, Brown says, “I was told by the local FBI that there was a file on me, electronic surveillance, and that it was active and so I could not get a copy of it,” said Brown. “Mind you, this was the year after the Surveillance Camera Players began, but the SCP didn’t become truly committed to its mission until 1999.”
Brown conceived the SCP in the mold of the Situationist-inspired groups that flourished in the ’60s, utilizing artistic expression as a form of political activism. In its first official statement, the SCP described itself as
just a bunch of average Joes and Josephines who appreciate how boring it must be for law enforcement officers to watch the video images constantly being displayed on…surveillance systems that perpetually monitor our behavior and appearance all over the city. The only time these officers have any fun watching these monitors is when something illegal is going on. But the crime rate is down and the subways…are the safest they have been in 30 years. Thus, for untold numbers of police surveillants, there is less and less to watch…every day…. [T]he members of the SCP have banded together to present a specially-designed series of famous dramatic works of the modern period for the entertainment, amusement and moral edification of the surveilling members of the law enforcement community.
Nearly a dozen years later, the SCP has performed more than sixty plays in front of publicly placed surveillance cameras around New York City.
The group contributed to the iSee initiative, spearheaded by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, which has produced maps detailing the locations of surveillance cameras in New York City neighborhoods for those New Yorkers who feel the cameras target them unfairly and those who simply prefer not to have their daily lives videotaped. During a recent tour of Lower Manhattan, Brown handed out copies of an updated version of one of these maps, which identified surveillance cameras located around City Hall.