Special Report

They Like to Watch

Like it or not, surveillance cameras are coming to a street near you.

By 6.1.07

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Most of us know someone who is obsessed with conspiracy theories, a friend who's always gibbering about how video stores sell your personal information to the CIA, who causes loud and embarrassing scenes at the checkout counter when asked for her zip code. Accompany her down any city street and she can point out every surveillance camera on the block. All twenty of them.

Yes, twenty.

That's how many my friend Kitty pointed out to me the other day -- eight atop the federal courthouse alone. By the time we'd reached Starbucks I was as paranoid as she was. "And those are just the ones you can see," she noted grimly. "That doesn't count the ones in the ATMs or the mobile satellites and video cameras in police cars. Some of these cameras can look right through your clothing."

"Even your unmentionables?" I asked in mock horror.

"Yup. That's why I wear only petroleum-based fabrics. They can't see through oil."

Damn. I'd neglected to wear my petroleum-based boxers. No wonder I felt violated, like a young con on his first day in Attica. Kitty's paranoia put me in mind of those X-ray glasses they used to advertise in the back of Spiderman comic books. Just strap on these dorky paper glasses and see what color knickers Sister Marie Cecilia is wearing today.

Fortunately you don't have to be a comic book geek or a G-man to snoop like a pro. Extreme surveillance is only a google and MasterCard number away. This site offers "intelligent video surveillance solutions," via "professional grade video surveillance equipment and security accessories to residential, commercial, government and law enforcement agencies worldwide." If that's too pricey, Personalalarms.com sells "everyday household items embedded with a cheap surveillance camera....You can purchase fully-functioning clocks, radios, smoke detectors, books, glasses and more, each with its own secret camera. All of these items look so normal that no one will be able to tell they contain a cheap surveillance camera."

Welcome to the Surveillance Society, one that increasingly has no borders. In Britain, fittingly the home of George Orwell, the average Englishman is videotaped 300 times a day. So are Brits safer for all this exposure? Not according to a British Home Office research study. Its conclusion: surveillance cameras did not reduce crime in 13 of the 14 settings where their use was studied. (The only place they seem to be effective is parking garages.) Doubtless video surveillance can sometimes help identify criminals -- at least criminals too stupid to wear a mask or a hat -- but it can also be abused, as in a 2005 case in Tennessee where an official at Livingston Middle School took the precaution of monitoring the girls' locker room, images of which ended up on the Internet. According to the New York Times, images from the locker room were fed into a video server that sat in an assistant principal's office. In another instance of life imitating Orwellian art, officials at the University of Nevada, Reno used one of its 80 "homeland security" surveillance cameras to spy on a professor who was suing the university.

WITH A FEW EXCEPTIONS, Americans seem content to trade privacy for security, whether it is from crime or fear of terrorist attack. Generation Y especially, raised on video cameras, Webcams, MySpace, Oprah, and reality TV shows, seems to prefer exhibitionism to privacy. Y-ers are used to videocams filming their most inane activities. Cameras are part of the scenery, soothing, comforting, like elevator music with eyes.

It doesn't help the cause of privacy that government officials irately question the motives, politics and patriotism of anyone who objects to having a camera shoved up his nose the second he sets foot outside his home. "Only someone completely distrustful of all government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras," snapped former NYC Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

With the exception of restrooms there's no expectation of privacy in public spaces, workplaces or schools. Yet there is doubtless something sinister about the way Nordstrom's uses surveillance cameras to police the public sidewalk outside its buildings. Or the way football fans entering Tampa Bay's Raymond James stadium were secretly scanned with face recognition software. Until recently my feeling has been, "So what? I have nothing to hide." But shouldn't the idea of being videotaped 300 times a day while you go about your business be of concern to citizens living in a free society? Doesn't this indiscriminate surveillance call into question the very idea of a free society? Indeed, the very word "surveillance" should make the skin crawl. Coined in France in 1802, it was used to describe the actions of the Committees of Surveillance created to catch "suspects" and "foreigners" during the Reign of Terror. Once only suspected criminals were held under surveillance. Today, like characters in an Agatha Christie novel, everyone is a suspect.

In announcing his city's new surveillance program Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said, "Cameras are the equivalent of hundreds of sets of eyes....[Besides] the city owns the sidewalks. We own the streets and we own the alleys."

This raises an important question: with all these camera focused on you and me, who's watching the Richard Daleys?

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.