Intro v.911: "Now more than ever"
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Introduction

iSee is a web-based application charting the locations of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras in urban environments. With iSee, users can find routes that avoid these cameras -­ paths of least surveillance -­ allowing them to walk around their cities without fear of being "caught on tape" by unregulated security monitors.

How to use iSee

1) Click on starting location.

An icon will appear.


2) Click on destination.

iSEE will generate the safest 'path of least surveillance' between these two places.

Who should use iSee

The past several years has seen a dramatic increase in CCTV surveillance of public space. Video cameras peer at us from the sides of buildings, from ATM machines, from traffic lights, capturing our every move for observation by police officers and private security guards that often act with very little public or legislative oversight. While the effectiveness of these devices in reducing crime is dubious at best (see below), recent cases of misuse by public and private authorities serve to question the appropriateness of video monitoring in public space. Here is a short list of people who might legitimately want to avoid having their picture taken by unseen observers:

Minorities

One of the big problems with video surveillance is the tendency of police officers and security guards to single out particular people to monitor. It is hardly surprising that the mentality leading to racial profiling in traffic stops has found similar expression in police officers focusing their cameras on people of color. Indeed, a recent study of video surveillance in the UK, the leading user of CCTV surveillance systems, says that "black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population." It is worth pointing out that, in this study, 40% of people that the police targeted were picked out "for no obvious reason," other than their ethnicity or apparent membership in various subcultural groups. In other words, they were singled out not for what they were doing, but simply based on how they looked.

Women

It appears that police monitors just can’t seem to keep it in their pants when it comes to video surveillance. In a Hull University study, 1 out of 10 women were targeted for “voyeuristic” reasons by male camera operators, and a Brooklyn police sergeant blew the whistle on several of her colleagues in 1998 for “taking pictures of civilian women in the area ... from breast shots to the backside."

Youth

Young men, particularly young black men, are routinely singled out by police operators for increased scrutiny. This is particularly true if they appear to belong to subcultural groups that authority figures find suspicious or threatening. Do you wear baggy pants or shave your head? Smile – you’re on candid camera!

"Outsiders"

The Hull University study also found a tendency of CCTV operators to focus on people whose appearance or activities marked them as being "out of place." This includes people loitering outside of shops, or homeless people panhandling. Not surprisingly, this group includes individuals observed to be expressing their opposition to the CCTV cameras.

Activists

Experience has shown that CCTV systems may be used to spy on activist groups engaged in legal forms of dissent or discussion. Indeed, the City College of New York was embarrassed several years ago by student activists who found, much to their dismay, that the administration had installed surveillance cameras in their meeting areas. This trend shows no signs of abating: one of the more popular demonstrations of CCTV capabilities that law enforcement officials and manufacturers like to cite is the ability to read the text of fliers that activists post on public lampposts.

Everyone else

Let’s face it – we all do things that are perfectly legal, but that we still may not want to share with the rest of the world. Kissing your lover on the street, interviewing for a new job without your current employer’s knowledge, visiting a psychiatrist – these are everyday activities that constitute our personal, private lives. While there is nothing wrong with any of them, there are perfectly good reasons why we may choose to keep them secret from coworkers, neighbors, or anyone else.

 

But what’s the harm?

Clearly, video surveillance of public space represents an invasion of personal privacy. But so what? Having one's picture taken from time to time seems a small price to pay for the security benefits such surveillance offers. It's not like anyone ever sees the tapes, and let's be honest ­ being singled out for scrutiny by remote operators without your even knowing about it is not at all the same as being pulled over, intimidated and harassed by a live cop.

Unfortunately, this is not entirely accurate. The fact is, there is very little oversight of video surveillance systems, and the question of who owns the tapes ­ and who has the right to see them -­ is still largely undecided.

The fact is, many of the cameras monitoring public space are privately owned. Banks, office buildings, and department stores all routinely engage in continuous video monitoring of their facilities and of any adjacent public space. The recordings they make are privately owned, and may be stored, broadcast, or sold to other companies without permission, disclosure, or payment to the people involved.

Similarly, video footage that is captured by public police departments may be considered part of the "public record," and as such are available for the asking to individuals, companies, and government agencies. At present, there is precious little to prevent television programs like "Cops" and "America's Funniest Home Movies" from broadcasting surveillance video without ever securing permission from their subjects.

Sound far-fetched? Already in the UK ­ the country that so far has made the most extensive use of CCTV systems (although the Canada and US are catching up) ­ there has been one such case. In 199X, Barrie Goulding released "Caught in the Act" a video compilation of "juicy bits" from street video surveillance systems. Featuring intimate contacts ­ including one scene of a couple having sex in an elevator ­ this video sensationalized footage of ordinary people engaged in (mostly) legal but nonetheless private acts.

Similarly, there has been a proliferation of "spy cam" websites featuring clandestine footage of women in toilets, dressing rooms, and a variety of other locations. A lack of legislative oversight allows these sites to operate legally, but even if new laws are passed, the nature of the Internet makes prosecutions highly unlikely.

As video surveillance systems evolve and become more sophisticated, the opportunities for abuse are compounded. Sophisticated video systems can identify the faces of individuals (matching video images to databases of known faces ­ for example, the repository of driver's license photos maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles), the objects they carry (including, for example, reading the text on personal documents), and their activities. These systems enable the creation of databases that know who you are, where you've been, when you were there, and what you were doing. Databases that are conceivably available to a host of people with whom you'd rather not share such information, including employers, ex-lovers, and television producers.

All of this says nothing about the societal impact of our increasing reliance on surveillance, and our growing willingness to put ourselves under the microscope of law enforcement and commercial interests. Once a cold-war caricature of Soviet-style communist regimes, the notion of the "surveillance society" is increasingly employed to describe modern urban life in such bastions of personal liberty and freedom as the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.

While the nature of such a society has been long theorized by philosophers, critics, and sociologists, the psychological and social effects of living under constant surveillance are not yet well understood. However, the impacts that CCTV systems have on crime are beginning to be known.

Video Surveillance and Crime

Touted as a high-tech solution to social problems of crime and disorder by manufacturers selling expensive video surveillance systems to local governments and police departments, CCTV has gained much popularity in recent years. These manufactures claim that CCTV ­ which often costs upwards of $400,000 to install in a limited area ­ will dramatically decrease criminality, and provide a measure of security heretofore unknown to the general public. As these CCTV systems are often purchased at the expense of other less-oppressive, less-expensive, and proven law-enforecement methods such as community policing, the claims of CCTV merchants should be carefully scrutinized.

CCTV is often promoted with thinly veiled references to the threat of terrorism: hence their widespread use in the UK, which has long lived with bomb threats and other violent actions. Already, in light of the September 11 attacks, video surveillance manufacturers have begun to court the American public ­ with some measure of success as evidenced by recent gains in these companies' share prices.

Attempting to capitalize on an international tragedy to sell product in this manner may seem tastelessly opportunistic at best. Given the track record of CCTV systems to date, this strategy seems downright cynical. According to studies of the effectiveness of video surveillance in use throughout the UK, there is no conclusive evidence that the presence of CCTV has any impact on local crime rates. While there have been examples of reduced criminality in areas where CCTV has been installed, these reductions may also be explained by other factors, including general decreases in crime throughout the UK. Indeed, in several areas where CCTV was installed, crime rates actually increased.

Given the widespread use of these systems, it is surprising how infrequently they lead to arrests. According to one report, a 22-month long surveillance of New York's Times Square led to only 10 arrests (those cameras have since been removed). Furthermore, the type of crime against which CCTV is most effective seems positively mundane when compared to its advocate's claims of stopping terrorism and kidnappings. A study of CCTV use in the UK found that the majority of arrests in which video surveillance played a significant role were to stop fistfights. Again, this was a relatively infrequent occurrence, and hardly seems to justify the price tag and loss of privacy these systems inherently engender.

More disturbing, however, was the finding that incidents of police brutality and harassment captured by CCTV surveillance were routinely ignored. The tapes of these events also had a tendency to be "lost" by operators.

The effect of video surveillance on criminal psychology is also not well understood. One Los Angeles study found that cameras in a retail store were perceived by criminals as a challenge, and in fact offered became an inducement towards shoplifting.

At best, CCTV seems to not reduce crime, but merely to divert it to other areas. According to one Boston police official, "criminals get used to the cameras and tend to move out of sight."

A final thought...

Given heightened awareness of public safety and increased demand for greater security in the face of growing threats of terrorist violence, projects that undermine systems for social control may seem to some viewers to be in poor taste. It is the Institute for Applied Autonomy's position that such times call out all the more strongly for precisely these kinds of projects. As spytech dealers stumble over themselves in their haste to auction off our civil liberties - wrapped in the stars and stripes, tied up tight with memorial ribbons - to right-wing politicos who drool and salivate in anticipation of railroading their own Orwellian wet-dreams of social control through our legislative bodies, there is a vital need for independent voices that cry out against such cynical exploitation of legitimate human fear and suffering for political power and monetary gain. The Institute for Applied Autonomy is such a voice. iSee is our statement.

- Brought to you by the
Institute for Applied Autonomy
"N
ow more than ever."

References

"ACLU Calls on Law Enforcement to Support Privacy Laws for Public Video Surveillance: Statement of Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director American Civil Liberties Union" American Civil Liberties Union (Press Release), April 8, 1999Boal, Mark, "Spycam City: The Surveillance Society: Part One," The Village Voice, week of Sept 30 – Oct 6, 1998

Flaherty, David H. "Video surveillance by public bodies: a discussion (Investigation P98-012)," Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, March 31, 1998

Levine, M. (2000). Surveillance, CCTV and SIDE: developing a research programme. In T. Postmes, R. Spears, M. Lea, & S.D Reicher (Eds.) SIDE issues centre stage: Recent developments of de-individuation in groups. Amsterdam: Proceedings of the Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Norris, C. and Armstrong, G. "The unforgiving Eye: CCTV surveillance in public space" Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, Hull University, 1997.

"NYPD to Try Video (Again)", Privacy Journal, April 1997

Reeder, Allan, "To See and Be Seen," The Atlantic Monthly Digital Edition, July 1998

Sher, Scott, "Continuous Video Surveillance and its Legal Consequences (PLRI Working Papers Series Fall 1996-01)," Public Law Research Institute, University of California Hastings College of the Law, 1996

Scottish Office Central Research Unit, "Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No 30: The Effect of closed circuit television on recorded crime rates and public concern about crime in Glasgow," July 7, 1999

"Video surveillance in public places,"  British Columbia Civil Liberties Association Newsflash!, June 1999

 

Institute for Applied Autonomy
"Now more than ever"