Smile, You're On Camera

December 20, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Surveillance cameras. London has a half million of them. In New York, in Greenwich Village and Soho, there are about 4,200 — a drop in the London bucket, but five times more than in 1998. That’s according to a survey out last week by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The majority of the cameras were installed and operated by private businesses and buildings.

The cameras are supposedly for our protection, but the NYCLU and others claim that the cameras do not reduce crime, though they may help catch perpetrators after the crime has been committed. But perhaps that’s only because the criminals don’t know about them. Or if criminals do know, the cameras are so unobtrusive that the criminals forget they are there. As anyone who has done participant observation knows, after a while, people will tune out even human observers who are standing right there and go on about their business, even when that business is of questionable legality. “I don’t see how my men could have done that with those observers right there in the car,” said one police officer when shown an observational report about police brutality. That was forty years ago. Now the cops are on videotape. Has possibility of a video turning up all over the news on TV has had any affect on the way police do their work?

The NYCLU worries about the erosion of privacy, especially by police cameras. The camera proponents argue that the cameras are trained on the streets or the interiors of stores. They see nothing more than what a person in the same situation might see, though usually from a higher angle. The NYCLU points to cases where people thought they were alone, in fact were alone in the sense that no other people were around, but were secretly taped. The NYCLU even found a classic example: police using the night-vision capacity of a helicopter camera switched the focus from a bicycle protest to the terrace of an apartment building, where a couple who thought they were alone in the dark were making love.

Still, there’s a difference between being out in public, casually noticed by strangers, and being watched. One afternoon in ancient times, back when I was in grad school, I was walking around town after lunch one day. (It may even have been one of those days when I lunched with a group that included the current director of the NYCLU, not that that’s relevant.) It was a warm day, and because my hands sweat, and because I didn’t want the paperback book I was carrying to get damaged, I folded it into the protection of my newspaper. At some point as I was walking down the street, a man in a suit tapped me on the shoulder. “Do you mind if I see that book you’ve got inside that paper?” he said.

I was stunned. He was a store detective from the bookstore, where I had been browsing earlier, and he thought I might have shoplifted the book. I showed him the book, which he could see immediately was not stolen. “O.K.,” he said. I had no problem with the bookstore wanting to protect itself from shoplifting. But then it hit me. “You mean you’ve been following me all this time?” I had left the bookstore ten or fifteen minutes earlier. “Yeah. I lost you over on [he named some street or store, which I don’t remember] for a while.”

My reaction was visceral; I could feel it in my gut— uneasiness, almost fear. I immediately thought back over my path since leaving the store. I had been in public the whole time, all my activities visible to strangers. Still, I wondered if I had done anything that I wouldn’t have wanted him to have seen— nothing criminal, just embarrassing or in some way private. I didn’t like the idea that I’d been followed and spied on.

When we’re in public, we take it for granted that others will notice us as one of the crowd. It’s a very different feeling to think that we are having every movement, every twitch and scratch, closely observed and recorded.

I guess I’ll watch Coppola’s film “The Conversation” next time it comes around on television. And maybe I’ll include the Civil Liberties Union among my year-end donations.

1 comment:

Bad Runner said...

I'vesometime thought about this issue in the context of IRB or Human Subjects Review for research. Is it ok to watch/record what people do in public for the sake of resaerch data? Or should you get their permission? It is legal to do this, but is it ethical to "take" from them without permission?