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.
“I’ve given you maps so that you can express yourself in front of the cameras,” Brown said. “The maps also show you how to avoid the cameras for those of you who want to. It is still possible to go offline.” This may be true, but doing so has gotten a lot harder recently and may soon be impossible.
“I do think that in this day and age, if you think that cameras aren’t watching you, you are very naïve,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in October during a tour of London’s massive surveillance-camera system. “We are under surveillance all the time. We live in a dangerous world and people want to have security cameras.” Bloomberg added that everyone he had met in London was “thrilled” about the security cameras around the city. Regardless of how “thrilled” New Yorkers are about the security such cameras provide, Bloomberg has given them more than they realize, and recently announced plans to place many more in sites around the city. “Bloomberg came back from London camera-happy,” said Brown.
Since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have added scores of surveillance cameras to the thousands of cameras that already covered much of New York City’s public housing developments, streets, bridges and tunnels. Nearly 400 MTA buses now carry sophisticated surveillance cameras. In addition, a fast-growing number of subway stations have so-called “passenger identification systems” that record images of everyone who passes through a turnstile or entrance gate. Like London’s system, these new cameras will ultimately feed into a centralized “watcher’s booth” where a range of computer programs will process them and alert law enforcement officers about potential dangers.
New York City already uses cameras that automatically ticket drivers who ignore red lights. In addition, Lower Manhattan already has at least one camera that records license plates and feeds the information into a central database that alerts the NYPD when a suspicious car or truck is in the area, the New York Daily News recently reported.
In August 2005, the MTA awarded a $212 million contract to Lockheed Martin to deploy “smart camera” systems in subway and train stations in New York City. “If you have people viewing cameras, it is like watching TV–they will get tired and you don’t know if they are going to miss something,” an MTA security official, William Morange, told Congressional Quarterly in March. “Smart cameras” claim to eliminate the need for human monitors by using cutting-edge software that can interpret video streams and detect suspicious behavior.
“It doesn’t matter whether its corn or cars or surveillance cameras, this is the business of the day,” said Brown. “The same companies that put up cameras in Baghdad put up cameras on Wall Street.” Lockheed Martin is only one of many major military contractors cashing in on New York City’s surveillance bonanza. Northrop Grumman, which won a $500 million contract last year to create a secure high-speed wireless network for city agencies, installed the camera in Lower Manhattan that reads license plates. In October, the NYPD awarded a $9 million contract to NICE Systems, an Israel-based technology company, to design the city’s next generation of emergency call centers, as part of the largest public safety project on record. The new call centers will integrate telephony, web, e-mail, radio, video and other data sources to capture, manage, analyze and reconstruct multimedia incidents.
“The cameras are supposed to make us feel happy, but they’re actually making us feel creepy, because we don’t know who’s watching or why,” said Brown, as he pointed out a cluster of cameras hanging on a lamppost near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. “No camera is innocent until you know who is watching.” These days, the watchers are more elusive than ever. In the wake of 9/11, local and federal government agencies scrambled to expand the scope of surveillance in New York City by orders of magnitude. The blitz resulted in a series of bureaucratic alliances and turf battles that has made it nearly impossible to identify who controls which cameras.
“I’m not a technophobe or a primitivist or any other type of Luddite that happens to be in fashion,” said Brown. “I just don’t believe in the silver bullet of technology. As you get more scientifically advanced, you solve some problems but create new ones. There have been three generations of cameras installed in New York City. Each generation has tried to solve the problems created by the one that came before it, but have ended up creating a whole new set of problems themselves. People and policy solve problems, technology only makes them worse. Cameras manage symptoms rather than solving problems.”
“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.
“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.”