TECHSPLOITATION: Surveillance 101

"We are the laboratory for the future surveillance state," said Bill Brown, pointing at the Seventh Avenue entrance to the station for the Long Island train in New York. Under a vaguely menacing tower of glass and girders, four surveillance cameras were tucked up next to the ceiling. Beneath them, two members of the National Guard lounged with their guns. "Why do we need humans and cameras to watch us?" Brown wondered angrily. The 25 people following him and listening intently peered into the station entrance, trying to look back into the eyes looking at them.

Our guide on the Surveillance Camera Tour of New York City, Brown is a member of the Surveillance Camera Players, an activist group devoted to the paradoxical idea of privacy in public. "What's great about New York City is that no matter how weird you are or how famous you are, you can blend in with the crowds," Brown argued. "Surveillance cameras take that away from us. They're almost like guards asking you to show your papers on the street."

U.S. privacy laws allow public surveillance because, their proponents say, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy on the street. But Brown and his fellow activists think New York's mechanical eyes violate human dignity, converting our anonymous public lives into somebody's private video collection. To raise people's awareness about the thousands of surveillance cameras in New York, members of the Surveillance Camera Players lead tours on which sightseeing means finding cameras hidden in street lamps and mounted high on the walls of buildings. Sometimes the players stand under cameras and hold up signs with slogans like "None of Your Business."

The tour began at the entrance of our hotel, where we were attending the annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference. After countless panels on how our digital privacy was being violated right and left by the Bush-Ashcroft regime, we were ready to see for ourselves what eroding privacy rights had done to the landscape of the Big Apple. Brown handed out maps of New York's fashion district, roughly the area between 11th Avenue and 32nd Street and 6th Avenue and 38th Street. Little bubbles on the map marked the location of surveillance devices, each one labeled with a letter that signified who owned the equipment in that spot. Most of the map was lousy with bubbles, the majority of them marked "p" for private. A surprising number were also marked "g" for government or "c" for city or New York Police Department.

As we gazed up at the two cameras attached several feet above our heads over the New Yorker Hotel's grand entrance, Brown explained that once you know where to look, you'll discover that your movements are being recorded everywhere. "Most people treat the city like a tunnel, and they never look above the level of other people's mouths -- they don't want eye contact," he said. "But when you look for cameras, you have to look up." Across the street, several stories up, on the roof of the restaurant Reise, we spotted a Webcam tracking our movements.

We reached a crescendo of privacy invasion at Macy's loading docks, where three generations of cameras were encrusted on seemingly every surface. Stationary cameras from the '70s were positioned next to contemporary remote-controlled roving cameras and '80s-era lenses disguised by egg-shaped plastic covers resembling lamps. As we walked past delivery trucks, a guard with a headset and a large dog watched us wave at whomever was monitoring the cameras.

Maurice Wessling, a privacy advocate from Holland, admired the camera setup and laughed sardonically. He said his organization Bits of Freedom had created a similar map of Amsterdam. Over the next several months, Wessling said, the Amsterdam police are planning to blanket the city's famed red-light district with manned surveillance cameras for crime prevention. But the problem with most cameras in Amsterdam, he said, is that you don't know who owns them. Unlike the States, countries like Holland that adhere to the European Privacy Directive policies abide by a rule stating that citizens must be able to gain access to data collected about them (except data that's part of a criminal investigation). "But you can't ask for the information these cameras record because you don't know who is gathering it," Wessling said.

People in the States, of course, face the same difficulty. But we don't have a Privacy Directive to help us articulate the real issue underlying having our movements taped as we walk down the street. At least Europeans recognize that data collection should be regulated. You have a right to know what Big Brother is finding out about you. More disturbing than having our movements committed to media records in perpetuity is the fact that we don't know who is doing it and why. I suppose what I'm saying is that gathering information isn't the problem. It's what you do with it and for whom.

Annalee Newitz (spycam@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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