Insecurity Cameras | The Nation


Insecurity Cameras

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"It's just ridiculous people who object to using technology," Mayor Bloomberg said as a London officer displayed an image of the mayor's car driving in the neighborhood less than an hour earlier. "We have to pay either police officers or technology, and using a combination really lets you be much more efficient." Brown may not have Bloomberg on his side when he cautions tour-goers to think twice about the new system's potential for abuse.

About the Author

William Pentland
William Pentland is a fall 2007 Nation intern.

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"This thirty-year-old camera is a symbol of the old glory days when they could watch lefties and everyone loved it," said Brown, as he pointed to an antiquated camera hanging from the side of a building adjacent to City Hall. The camera appeared briefly in a controversial documentary, Red Squad, about how New York's Police Department used surveillance cameras to secretly monitor protests against the Vietnam War. Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler, then students at New York University Film School, started making the documentary in 1971. Soon after, the FBI and NYPD tried to stop them, sending agents to urge Martin Scorsese, the NYU instructor overseeing the film project, to deep-six the project. Scorsese refused.

Sucher and Fischler completed the film in 1972 and soon after joined a class-action lawsuit filed the year before by Barbara Handschu, Abbie Hoffman and members of the Black Panthers asking the court to curtail the NYPD's abusive surveillance practices.

The Red Squad, the NYPD's political arm, began in 1906 as the "Italian Squad," which aimed to curtail the illegal activities of a group of Italian immigrants known as the Black Hand Society. In 1909, it reorganized as the Anarchist Squad, which monitored the activities of anarchists in the city. By the 1970s, the squad's name had changed again to the Special Services Division and it had collected dossiers on hundreds of thousands of politically active individuals and thousands of political organizations.

Before the Handschu lawsuit was settled in 1985, evidence surfaced that the SSD had routinely disseminated information to discredit individuals with employers, licensing agencies and bar admission committees. The lawsuit also produced evidence that the SSD had widely used informers and infiltrators, telephone wiretapping, electronic eavesdropping, surreptitious recording of conversations, covert photography of individuals attending demonstrations, and recording speeches at demonstrations. In the Handschu decision, the court ordered the NYPD to follow a rigid set of guidelines prohibiting them from monitoring political activity unless they received a kind of administrative warrant from a civilian oversight panel.

In February 2003, US District Court Judge Charles Haight gutted the Handschu guidelines, removing the procedural and substantive limits on the NYPD's surveillance powers. "We live in a different, more dangerous time than when the consent decree was approved in 1985," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said after Judge Haight dissolved the Handschu order. "This ruling removes restrictions from a bygone era, and will allow us to more effectively carry out of counterterrorism investigations."

The police department's deputy commissioner for intelligence, David Cohen--a former senior official in the Central Intelligence Agency--led the campaign to abrogate the Handschu restrictions. Judge Haight's ruling cited an affidavit Cohen submitted that argued there were "changed circumstances" since the September 11 attacks. Cohen claimed that American mosques were largely radicalized, and had been used, along with other Islamic institutes, "to shield the work of terrorists from law enforcement scrutiny by taking advantage of restrictions on the investigation of First Amendment activity."

In February 2007, in a sudden reversal, Judge Haight reinstated the Handschu guidelines and strongly rebuked the NYPD for conducting "egregious" surveillance of purely political activities. Judge Haight said the police department had overstepped its authority by surreptitiously videotaping a march in Harlem and a demonstration by homeless people in front of Mayor Bloomberg's Upper East Side home.

The government has a long and storied history of abusing surveillance powers. The more powerful surveillance technology grows, the more Bill Brown gets concerned. "When consumer convenience merges with law enforcement, merges with the military-industrial complex, this is what I worry about. Not today, not tomorrow, but the day after."

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