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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
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
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
Qüark. Such devices are designed to be hidden in
everything from smoke detectors to neckties.
Qüark specializes in souping up stuffed animals for
use in monitoring nannies. A favorite hiding place is
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:
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