iSee (http://www.appliedautonomy.com/isee/) is a web-based application mapping the locations of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras* in urban environments. With iSee, users find routes that avoid these cameras – paths of least surveillance – in order to walk around their cities without fear of being "caught on tape" by unregulated security monitors.
* The camera location data for iSee was provided by the New York Surveillance Camera Project (http://www.mediaeater.com/cameras/)
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 installed on buildings, ATM machines, and traffic lights, capture our every move for scrutiny by police officers and private security guards who enjoy a pronounced lack of public or legislative oversight. While the effectiveness of these devices in reducing crime has never been proved, documented examples of misuse by public and private authorities raise serious concerns about the appropriateness of video monitoring of public space. Here is a short list of people who might legitimately want to avoid having their picture taken by unseen observers:
A primary criticism of video surveillance is the tendency of police officers and security guards to single out particular people for scrutiny. It is hardly surprising that the mentality of racial profiling to combat traffic violations 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, shows 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 involvement with various subculture groups. In other words, individuals were singled out for how they looked rather than what they were doing.
It appears that police monitors just can’t 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."
Young men – particularly young black men – are routinely scrutinized by CCTV operators. This is particularly true if they appear to belong to subculture groups that authority figures find suspicious or threatening. Do you wear baggy pants or shave your head? Smile – you’re on candid camera!
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 individuals loitering near shops and homeless people panhandling. Not surprisingly, this group includes individuals expressing opposition to CCTV monitoring – by "flipping the bird" to the cameras, for example.
Experience has shown that CCTV systems are 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 cited by law enforcement officials and manufacturers is the ability to read the text of fliers posted by activists on public lampposts.
Let’s face it – we all do perfectly legal things that we may not want to sha re with the rest of the world. Kissing a 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 unlawful or immoral about 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?
Video surveillance of public space represents a clear invasion of personal privacy. "But so what?" argue it’s advocates. "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 to be honest, being scrutinized by remote operators without one’s knowledge is not at all the same as being pulled over, intimidated, and harassed by a live cop."
Unfortunately, these claims are largely inaccurate. 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.
Many of the cameras monitoring public space are privately owned. Banks, office buildings, and department stores routinely engage in continuous video monitoring of their facilities and adjacent public space. The recordings they make are privately owned and may be archived, 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 is part of the "public record," and as such may be 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 makes the most extensive use of CCTV systems (although the Canada and US are catching up) – there has been one such case. In 1996, Barrie Goulding, a British television producer, released "Caught in the Act," a compilation of CCTV footage purchased from security firms, retailers and municipal governments. 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. Even if new laws are passed, the nature of the Internet makes prosecutions highly unlikely. As video surveillance systems evolve, the opportunities for abuse are compounded. Sophisticated video systems match video images to databases of known faces – for example, the repository of driver’s license photos maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles – to identify people, the objects they carry (including reading the text on personal documents), and their activities. These systems will store information about who you are, where you’ve been, when you were there, and what you were doing in databases that are conceivably available to employers, ex-lovers, and television producers, among others.
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
CCTV has gained much popularity in recent years. Touted as a high-tech solution to social problems of crime and disorder, manufactures claim that CCTV will dramatically decrease criminality, and provide a measure of security heretofore unknown to the general public. As these CCTV systems, often costing upwards of $400,000 to install in a limited area, are often purchased in lieu of less-oppressive and less-expensive – but nonetheless proven effective – law-enforcement methods like 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 bombings, political assassinations, and other violent actions. Already, in light of the September 11 attacks, video surveillance manufacturers have stepped up efforts to court American clients – with some measure of success, if recent gains in these companies’ share prices are any indication.
Attempting to capitalize on international tragedy to sell product in this manner seems 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 advocates’ 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 fistfights. Even these were relatively infrequent, and hardly justify the monetary and civil liberty costs these systems 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 statement
In light of recent terrorist attacks, and ensuing public demand for greater security, projects undermining systems for social control may seem in poor taste to some viewers. It is the Institute for Applied Autonomy’s position that such times call out all the more strongly for precisely these kinds of projects. Already, our politicians are railroading their Orwellian wet-dreams of social control through the legislative body, auctioning off our civil liberties – wrapped in the stars and stripes, tied up tight with memorial ribbons – to spytech dealers who salivate in anticipation of soaring profits and stock market value. There is a vital need for independent voices to cry out against cynical exploitation of genuine fear and suffering for political power and monetary gain. It is in the interest of providing such a voice that we proudly present iSee.
– Brought to you by the Institute for Applied Autonomy
"Now more than ever."
* iSee is currently on display in the Ctrl-Space exhition at the ZKM. (http://ctrlspace.zkm.de/)
Recent discussion regarding iSee:
"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.
Gibson, H. "Voyeur on the Corner," Time International, Vol. 147, No. 15, April 8, 1996.
Levine, M. 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, 2000.
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