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IP: Spycam City: The surveillance society: part one

From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: Spycam City: The surveillance society: part one
Date: Tue, 06 Oct 1998 06:18:00 -0500
To: [email protected]

Source:  Village Voice

Spycam City:  The surveillance society: part one 

 by Mark Boal 

 Cameras stare as you browse at Barnes and
 Noble or rent a video at Blockbuster. They record
 the way you handle the merchandise at Macy's or
 how you glide to the music at the Union Square
 Virgin Megastore. Grab a latte at Starbucks,
 brunch on borscht at Veselka, or savor a martini at
 the Union Bar: cameras are watching every sip you
 take. Peering from skyscrapers with lenses that can
 count the buttons on a blouse three miles away,
 they watch every move you make. 

 Even Rudy likes to watch.After testing reaction to
 the monitoring of parks, public pools, and subway
 platforms, the city is quietly expanding a pilot
 program on buses. Cameras indistinguishable from
 lampposts have advanced from the perimeter of
 Washington Square into the heart of the park.
 They're already hidden at some bus stops and
 intersections to snag speeders and parking perps.
 More are on the way. 

 The Housing Authority is rushing to put
 bulletproof cameras in corridors throughout city

 At P.S. 83 in the Bronx, covert cameras cover
 the schoolyard; six other Bronx schools will soon
 follow suit. 

 Even university students are under watch, as
 activists at City College realized last June when
 they found a camera hidden in the smoke detector
 outside their meeting room. The administration had
 put it there. 

 Two local jails--Valhalla and Dutchess
 County--are adding cameras to their guards'
 helmets to go along with the ones in the visiting
 rooms and some cells. 

 With little public awareness and no debate, the
 scaffolding of mass surveillance is taking shape."it's
 all about balancing a sense of security against an
 invasion of privacy," Rudolph Giuliani insists. But
 the furtive encroachment of surveillance is Norman
 Siegel's latest lost cause. "I feel like Paul Revere,
 shouting 'The cameras are coming, the cameras are
 coming.' " says the New York Civil Liberties
 Union's executive director. 

 All summer, a crew of NYCLU volunteers
 scoured Manhattan on a mission to pinpoint every
 street-level camera. Next month, Siegel will unveil
 their findings: a map showing that cameras have
 become as ubiquitous as streetlights. It's impossible
 to say how many lenses are trained on the streets
 of New York, but in one eight-block radius, the
 NYCLU found over 300 in plain sight. And as one
 volunteer acknowledges, "There are tons of hidden
 cameras we didn't catch." 

 That's because it's routine in the security trade to
 buttress visible cameras with hidden ones, "so
 everything's covered and it doesn't look like a
 fortress," as one consultant says. These spycams
 scan unseen in tinted domes, from behind mirrors,
 or through openings the size of a pinhole. Under
 the joystick command of a distant operator, they're
 capable of zooming in or spinning 360 degrees in
 less than a second. If you listen to the people who
 install them, cameras are as common and elusive as
 shadows. But does anybody really care? 

 No New York law regulates surveillance (except
 to require cameras at ATM machines). Statutes
 that prohibit taping private conversations have
 been outpaced by video technology. Your words
 can't be recorded without your consent, but you
 can be videotaped in any public place. And you
 don't own your image (except for commercial

 It took the Supreme Court some 90 years to apply
 the Fourth Amendment's privacy protection to the
 telephone. Before a landmark 1967 case, it was
 legal to bug a phone booth. When legislators finally
 reined in wiretapping in 1968, video was a speck
 on the horizon, and cameras were excluded from
 the law. Now Congress is inundated with privacy
 bills, but few survive the combined resistance of
 manufacturers, service providers, law enforcement,
 and the media. 

 In 1991 and 1993, proposals to limit surveillance
 were killed in committee by a lobby of 12,500
 companies. Testifying against rules that would have
 required companies to notify their workers--and
 customers--of cameras, Barry Fineran of the
 National Association of Manufacturers called
 "random and periodic silent monitoring a very
 important management tool." This alliance backs its
 rhetoric with cash. During the 1996 Congressional
 campaign, finance and insurance companies alone
 invested $23 million in their antiprivacy agenda.
 And so the cameras keep rolling. 

 It's clear that surveillance makes many people feel
 safer. But researchers disagree about its value as a
 crime deterrent.The consensus is that cameras can
 curb spontaneous crimes like vandalism, but are
 less effective in stopping more calculated felonies.
 Though spycams are in banks and convenience
 stores, robberies at these places are staples of the
 police blotter. Hardcore crooks learn to work
 around surveillance: witness the masked bandit.
 And many cameras that promise security are only
 checked occasionally; their real purpose is not to
 stop a crime in progress, but to catch perps after
 the fact. Those reassuring cameras on subway
 platforms are there to make sure the trains run on

 It's telling that the camera quotient is increasing in
 the midst of a dramatic decline in crime.Clearly the
 spread of surveillance has less to do with
 lawlessness than with order. "Just don't do anything
 wrong," advises the smiling cop monitoring the
 hidden cameras in Washington Square, "and you
 have nothing to worry about." 

 But Americans are worried. Last year, 92 percent
 of respondents told a Harris-Westin poll they were
 "concerned" about threats to privacy, the highest
 level since the poll began in the late '70s. Despite
 this concern, there's been little research into the
 effects of living in an omnivideo environment.
 Surveillance scholarship was hip in the '60s and
 '70s, but academic interest has dropped noticeably
 in the past 20 years. In the neocon '90s, the
 nation's preeminent criminologist, James Q.
 Wilson, says he "never studied the subject [of
 security cameras] or talked to anyone who has." 

 One reason for this apathy is the academy's
 dependence on government money. "Federal
 funding does not encourage this kind of research,"
 says sociologist Gary Marx, one of the few
 authorities on surveillance. "The Justice
 Department just wants to know about crime
 control. It's bucks for cops." In fact, Justice money
 is lavished, not on research but on surveillance

 In this investigative void, a plucky new industry has
 sprung up. Sales of security cameras alone will
 total an estimated $5.7 billion by 2002. Cameras
 are now an integral part of new construction, along
 with sprinklers and smoke detectors. But the
 strongest sign that monitoring has gone mainstream
 is the plan by a security trade association to
 incorporate surveillance into the MBA curriculum. 

 Budding businessmen are interested in cameras
 because they are a cheap way to control
 wandering merchandise and shield against liability.
 Fast-food chains like McDonald's protect
 themselves from litigious customers with hidden
 camerasthat can catch someone planting a rat tail in
 the McNuggets. Surveillance also helps managers
 track workers' productivity, not to mention
 paper-clip larceny and xerox abuse. Though most
 employers prefer to scan phone calls and count
 keystrokes, it's legal in New York (and all but
 three states) for bosses to place hidden cameras in
 locker rooms and even bathrooms. 

 A 1996 study of workplace monitoring calculates
 that, by the year 2000, at least 40 million American
 workers will be subject to reconnaissance;
 currently, 85 percent of them are women, because
 they are more likely to work in customer service
 and data entry, where monitoring is commonplace.
 But that's changing as white-shoe firms like J.P.
 Morganput cameras in the corridors. 

 Meanwhile, in the public sector, New York City
 transit workers can expect scrutiny for "suspected
 malingering and other misuse of sick leave [by]
 confidential investigators using video surveillance,"
 according to a confidential MTA memo. Though
 the police would need a warrant to gather such
 information, employers don't."When most
 Americans go to work in the morning," says Lewis
 Maltby of the ACLU, "they might as well be going
 to a foreign country, because they are equally
 beyond the reach of the Constitution." 

 New York is hardly the only spy city. More than
 60 American urban centers use closed-circuit
 television in public places. In Baltimore, police
 cameras guard downtown intersections. In San
 Francisco, tiny cameras have been purchased for
 every car of the subway system. In Los Angeles,
 the camera capital of America, some shopping
 malls have central surveillance towers, and to the
 north in Redwood City, the streets are lined with
 parabolic microphones. Even in rustic Waynesville,
 Ohio, the village manager is proud of the cameras
 that monitor the annual Sauerkraut Festival. 

 America is fast becoming what Gary Marx calls "a
 surveillance society," where the boundary between
 the private and the public dissolves in adigital haze.
 "The new surveillance goes beyond merely
 invading privacy . . . to making irrelevant many of
 the constraints that protected privacy," Marx
 writes in Undercover: Police Surveillance in
 America. For example, mass monitoring allows
 police to eliminate cumbersome court hearings and
 warrants. Immediately after a crime, cops check
 cameras in the vicinity that may have captured the
 perp on tape. 

 So, as surveillance expands, it has the effect of
 enlarging the reach of the police. Once it becomes
 possible to bank all these images, and to call them
 up by physical typology, it will be feasible to set up
 an electronic sentry system giving police access to
 every citizen's comings and goings. 

 This apparatus isn't limited to cameras. Recent
 mass-transit innovations, such as the MetroCard,
 are also potential surveillance devices. A
 MetroCard's magnetic strip stores the location of
 the turnstile where it was last swiped. In the future,
 Norman Siegel predicts, it will be possible for
 police to round up suspects using this data. E-Z
 Passes already monitor speeding, since they
 register the time when drivers enter
 tollbooths.Once transportation credits and bank
 accounts are linked in "smart cards" (as is now the
 case in Washington, D.C.), new surveillance vistas
 will open to marketers and G-men alike. 

 Already the FBI clamors for the means to monitor
 any cell-phone call. Meanwhile other government
 agencies are developing schemes of their own. The
 Department of Transportation has proposed a rule
 that would encode state drivers' licenses, allowing
 them to double as national identity cards.
 Europeans know all about internal passports, but
 not even the East German Stazi could observe the
 entire population at a keystroke. "What the secret
 police could only dream of," says privacy expert
 David Banisar, "is rapidly becoming a reality in the
 free world." 

 What's more, spy cams are getting smaller and
 cheaper all the time. "A lens that used to be 14
 inches long can now literally be the size of my
 fingernail," says Gregg Graison of the spy shop
 Qark. Such devices are designed to be hidden in
 everything from smoke detectors to neckties.
 Qark specializes in souping up stuffed animals for
 use in monitoring nannies. A favorite hiding place is
 Barney's foot. 

 These devices reflect the growing presence of
 military hardware in civilian life. The Defense
 Department's gifts to retail include night-vision
 lenses developed during the Vietnam War and now
 being used to track pedestrians on 14th Street. A
 hundred bucks at a computer store already buys
 face-recognition software that was classified six
 years ago, which means that stored images can be
 called up according to biometric fingerprints. "It's
 all about archiving," says John Jay College
 criminologist Robert McCrie. And in the digital
 age, the zip drive is the limit. 

 The template for storing and retrieving images is
 Citibank's futuristic monitoring center in Midtown
 (this reporter was asked not to reveal the location),
 where 84 PCs flash images in near-real time from
 every branch in the city and beyond. Every day
 over a quarter of a million metro New Yorkers
 pass under these lenses. When the bank upgrades
 to digital in the next year or so, each image will be
 recorded and archived for 45 days. 

 What alarms civil libertarians is that "no one knows
 what happens to the tapes once they are recorded,
 or what people are doing with them," as Norman
 Siegel says. In fact, mass surveillance has created a
 new kind of abuse. Last summer, a police sergeant
 in Brooklyn blew the whistle on her fellow officers
 for improper use of their cameras. "They were
 taking pictures of civilian women in the area," says
 the policewoman's attorney, Jeffrey Goldberg,
 "from breast shots to the backside." 

 But you don't need a badge to spy, as plaintiffs
 around the country are discovering: 

 At a Neiman-Marcus store in California, a
 female worker discovered a hidden camera in the
 ceiling of her changing room that was being
 monitored by male colleagues. At the Sheraton
 Boston Hotel, a union president invited a comrade
 to view a videotape of himself in his underwear.
 The hotel was monitoring its workers' changing

 In Maryland, a 17-year-old lifeguard was
 videotaped changing into her bathing suit by her
 supervisor at the county swimming pool. Elsewhere
 in that state, a couple discovered that a neighbor
 had installed two cameras behind bathroom heating
 ducts and had monitored them for six months. 

 On Long Island, a couple discovered a pinhole
 camera watching the bedroom of their rented
 apartment. It had been planted by the owner. In
 Manhattan, a landlord taped a tenant having sex
 with his girlfriend in the hallway, and presented it
 along with a suggestion that the tenant vacate the
 premises. He did. 

 In this laissez-faire environment, whoever
 possesses your image is free to distribute it. And
 just as images of Bill Clinton leading a young
 woman into his private alcove ended up on Fox
 News, so can your most private moments if they
 are deemed newsworthy--as one Santa Monica
 woman learned to her horror when footage of her
 lying pinned inside a crashed car, begging to know
 if her children had died, ended up as infotainment.
 The paramedic, as it turns out, was wired. 

 The harvest from hidden cameras can also end up
 on the Internet, via the many Web sites that offer
 pics of women caught unaware. There are hidden
 toilet cams, gynocams, and even the intrepid
 dildocam. Though some of these images are clearly
 staged, others are real.Their popularity suggests
 that whatever the rationale, surveillance cameras
 resonate with our desire to gaze and be gazed
 upon. As J.G. Ballard, author of the sci-fi classic
 Crash, putsit, these candid-camera moments "plug
 into us like piglets into a sow's teat, raising the
 significance of the commonplace to almost
 planetary dimensions. In their gaze, we expose
 everything and reveal nothing." But exposure can
 be a means to an end. "Once the new surveillance
 systems become institutionalized and taken for
 granted in a democratic society," warns Gary
 Marx, they can be "used against those with the
 'wrong' political beliefs; against racial, ethnic, or
 religious minorities; and against those with lifestyles
 that offend the majority." 

 Earlier this month, New York police taped large
 portions of the Million Youth March in Harlem.In
 the ensuing furor over whether the tapes accurately
 portrayed the police response to a rowdy activist,
 a more basic issue went unaddressed. Social
 psychologists say that taping political events can
 affect a participant's self-image, since being
 surveilled is unconsciously associated with
 criminality. Ordinary citizens shy away from politics
 when they see activists subjected to scrutiny. As
 this footage is splayed across the nightly news,
 everyone gets the meta-message: hang with
 dissenters and you'll end up in a police video. 

 But even ordinary life is altered by surveillance
 creep. Once cameras reach a critical mass, they
 create what the sociologist Erving Goffman called,
 "a total institution," instilling barely perceptible
 feelings of self-consciousness. This process
 operates below the surface of everyday
 awareness, gradually eroding the anonymity people
 expect in cities. Deprived of public privacy, most
 people behave in ways that make them
 indistinguishable: you're less likely to kiss on a park
 bench if you know it will be on film. Over the long
 run, mass monitoring works like peer pressure,
 breeding conformity without seeming to. 

 Communications professor Carl Botan
 documented these effects in a 1996 study of
 workplace surveillance. Employees who knew they
 were being surveilled reported higher levels of
 uncertainty than their co-workers: they were more
 distrustful of bosses, their self-esteem suffered, and
 they became less likely to communicate. The result
 was "a distressed work force." 

 The anxiety of being watched by an unseen eye is
 so acute that the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy
 Bentham made it the basis of his plan for a humane
 prison, in which inmates were to be controlled by
 the knowledge that they might be under
 observation. Bentham called this instrument of
 ambiguity the Panopticon. 

 Ever since then, the power of the watcher over the
 watched has been a focal point of thinking about
 social control. The philosopher Michel Foucault
 regarded the panoptic force as an organizing
 feature of complex societies. Surveillance, Foucault
 concluded, is the modern way of achieving social
 coherence--but at a heavy cost to individuality.
 Spycams are the latest incarnation of this impulse.
 Welcome to the New Improved
 Panopticon.Twenty-five years ago, Mayor John V.
 Lindsay installed cameras in Times Square. But he
 took them down after 18 months because they
 only led to 10 arrests--causing The New York
 Times to call this experiment "the longest-running
 flop on the Great White Way." No such ridicule
 has greeted Giuliani's far more ambitious
 surveillance plans and his cheeky assertion that
 "you don't have an expectation of privacy in public

 It's a brave new world, but very different from the
 ones imagined by Aldous Huxley and George
 Orwell. Nineteen Eighty Four taught us to be
 alert to the black-booted tyrant. The Truman
 Show updates this Orwellian model as the saga of
 an ordinary man whose life is controlled by an
 omniscient "creator," a TV producer who orders
 the 5000 cameras surrounding his star to zoom in
 or pull back for the perfect shot. 

 As inheritors of Orwell's vision, we are unable to
 grasp the soft tyranny of today's surveillance
 society, where authority is so diffuse it's
 discreet.There is no Big Brother in Spycam City.
 Only thousands of watchers--a ragtag army as
 likely to include your neighbor as your boss or the
 police. In 1998, anybody could be watching you. 

 This is the first of a three-part series. 

 Part Two: Behold Jennifer, the Surveillance

 Additional reporting: Emily Wax. Research:
 Michael Kolber 
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