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Smile (or Not)- You Are Being Watched!

Do you think that you are an anonymous nobody, or do you secretly elaborate strategies to finally become famous and divert public attention on you? You are wrong! In fact, let me tell you that you are already all over the place! Especially since you have become a NYU student. There is no need to participate in Big Brother or other television reality shows; a slow stroll from Washington Square to the sports center is enough. My latest experiment will prove you why. Unfortunately (or fortunately for you), my project „Zero Camera“ has desperately failed.

Adam Curtis’ documentary has addressed a fundamental question I was asking myself for the last few weeks. What price has freedom? If we want to preserve and protect our so-called free and open society, is it inevitable that we will have to give up large parts of our privacy and personal rights? The failed terrorist bombing of the Northwest airplane on Christmas day has once again shown how vulnerable our society is. More important, it has made clear that fear has become the governing rationale of our living-together. I am shocked with was ease and speed civil liberties are revalued and curtailed in the name of national security. Although the efficiency and legitimacy of the draconian security measures adopted after the 9/11 events have been questioned by the public in the last few years, after Christmas, invasive „preventive“ actions have been taken without a blink. Full-body scanners will soon be installed in every airport. For now, this new measure still provokes outcry and is heatedly discussed, but within little time it will be largely accepted – as it occurred with the security/surveillance cameras systems in the past.

To make it clear, I don’t want to blame terrorism as the sole reason for this situation. In the last decades, there has been a unbreakable trend towards the „securization“ of our society. Private security companies have mushroomed everywhere on the globe, especially in industrialized countries, and became an integral part of our daily life. Today, it is completely normal- and even regarded as necessary- that surveillance cameras accompany us 24/7. But how true is this statement? Are video cameras really ubiquitous, at least in the cities? I asked myself when I was filmed in my daily life. Sure, I knew that banks and stores use video cameras, and in the subway I also had spotted several models. But around the university campus, it couldn’t be so bad, could it? Walking on University Place, I started to direct my look into the air, and suddenly realized that I was walking on a red carpet. On only eight blocks, I discovered ten cameras!

That is when I wanted to make an experiment. Could I get from Bobst Library to the Sports Center Palladium without being taped? With the help of i-See , a web-based application elaborated by the Institute for Applied Technology, I calculated my „Zero Camera“ route to trick the system, and find a way for not being taped on my way. The plan seemed simple: after some detours and small side-streets, I would arrive at my final destination on 14th street without being videotaped. With the city map in my hand, I left the library full excitement.

Half a bloc later, my first deception. Kimmel Center. Four cameras on one corner! Even worse, a quick inquiry with the security guard revealed that the building has approximately ten outdoor cameras. On Thompson street, the situation was similar. Clearly, i-See needed a huge update! Therefore, I changed my plan again, and decided to count all cameras on my „Zero Camera“ route. About twenty minutes later, and a nice walk in the East Village (by the way, the church at 10th street with 2nd Ave has a very nice garden!), the result was stunning: I discovered over 25 cameras. On practically every segment of my route my un-trained eye had found video cameras. The real number must be much higher, as a lot of cameras are hidden as lamps, and aren’t easy to detect.

According to a report published in 2006 by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) called “Who’s Watching? Video Camera Surveillance in New York City and the Need for Public Oversight,” the number of video sur-veillance cameras has skyrocketed in the last ten years. Whereas in 1998, over 2300 cameras were „visible from street level in Manhattan,“ in 2005 almost the same amount was counted in the area of Greenwich Village and SoHo only. Five years later, the current statistics must be even higher.

Of course, the purpose of video camera systems isn’t to turn common citizen into non-stop filmed celebrities. The proponents of video surveillance systems claim that the use of cameras deters crime, and enhances public safety. On the other hand, critics denounce that this technology undermines fundamental civil rights like the right to privacy, speech, expression and association. For example, the NYCLU has reported abuses of police monitoring powers in this regard, and raised awareness about the discriminating practice of racial profiling. The New York based performance collective called Surveillance Camera Players also protests against public video cameras, and makes a direct parallel to George Orwell’s surveillance society depicted in 1984.

The question is if these measures are effective and make us safer. But more important: Are the invasion of our privacy and the detriment of our personal rights the price of security? Do we have to be unfree in order to be free? In the end, it is a choice about what society we want. In my opinion, we are heading in the complete wrong direction.

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  1. agmichaels 06:22, Jan 25th, 10

    Amazing reporting, Nadine! I live on 14th, so I walk a similar path to campus every day, and not once have I looked up to see who was watching. It’s startling, the number of cameras you were able to pick up with the naked eye; how many more do you think are hidden?

    As creepy as it is to know my entire day is being filmed, I don’t think I’m as upset about it as I should be–or as my inner-Orwell is telling me I should be. Nothing I’m doing on the street constitutes what I consider “private time,” especially since there are already innumerable sets of human eyes watching me; what’s the harm in a few more mechanical ones? I also feel a little safer at ATMs knowing that possible muggers *know* I’m being watched.

    As a side note, how many of those cameras do you think were hooked up to recording devices? I know that smaller delis or markets will sometimes have a dummy camera up as a visual deterrent, with nothing actually connected to it.

  2. jeremywineberg 15:43, Jan 25th, 10

    I feel that having cameras everywhere is safe. I find security guards more of a nuisance and waste of money. For example the security guards that check everyones ID prior to entering any NYU building. Just the other day, I left my ID at my apartment and security would not let me into the building to class. I understand there is a precedent they need to make but really?

    Or how about the private security guards that drive around neighborhoods. To me they do not embed any safety. Surveillance cameras that are either on recording or dummies with a fake red light are more effective because if they are on, then it’s your word vs. what’s recorded on tape instead of a work for hire.

  3. Alexandra Cale 17:24, Jan 25th, 10

    Nadine, I thought this was a very interesting experiment. I must say that I am conflicted about my feelings on security cameras. In principle, it does bother me that security cameras on the street – or for that matter, body scanners at the airport, as you pointed out – are so overwhelmingly accepted and largely ignored. Part of me thinks we should not be so quick to give up our liberties.

    On the other hand, do stores not have a right to protect themselves from robberies? I thought agmichaels’ point about delis with fake cameras set up as a deterrent was a good one. From a store owner’s perspective, maybe he or she wants to be able to have proof if a robbery occurs. Here’s a recent example from my neighborhood (I unfortunately don’t live on campus!) where a security camera seems to have served its purpose.

  4. Alexandra Cale 17:25, Jan 25th, 10
  5. Ryan 01:12, Jan 26th, 10

    Nadine, you’re funny. You published a great post. Probably the best of this week I would say. Your creative experiment was very thought provoking and I believe that it showed with these responses. Here’s what I think…

    A lot of times we don’t even realize that there are cameras all around. Yes, people have always argued for protection of privacy at the onset of invasion of privacy by increased measures of surveillance and other security measures that have been implemented, the airport security tightened resulting from terrorist attack. Now it seems that we have to practically be stripped searched (digitally) to get through. Why do many people suffer at the fault of one person? That’s just the way things are these days.

    Take a look at schools for example. Unfortunately, schools look and feel more and more like prisons because of school shooting incidents of course.


    Moreover, this can greatly inhibit the learning experience of today’s learning institutions because of the overall feel and look of the environment. They are not places of learning anymore, but more places of survival, at least in a lot of urban, city schools. Yet there are no schools that are immune to violent acts e.g. University of Virginia, NYU, public schools, charter, etc.

    Yet, we have to factor the day and age that we live in and approach it in context to realize the atrocities amidst the digital age of computers, surveillance, and technology in general. Check out the movie called “The Lives of Others”. It is another example of surveillance using sound recording. Or even the movie “Enemy of the State”, or countless other examples that can be referenced with regards to personal freedom and invasion of privacy.

    For me personally, I don’t feel like my privacy is invaded because there are cameras set up at nearly every corner. I think it is a concern if you are suspicious or trying to do something illegal for that matter. I guess more security = less freedom. This is the price to pay.

  6. HoniehBarak 02:23, Jan 26th, 10

    Nadine, ingenious idea! I actually have been trying to do a similar experiment, but with my car! Ha! I am always trying to avoid ways of not getting a ticket, or tracked – I know it’s crazy – but I actually feel like my privacy is being invaded whenever I go through a toll booth and my EZ Pass is read. They always say, “Big Brother” is watching, but in respect to security, at school I believe it is very important. Especially since there have been occurrences of violence against students.

    If you can recall the 24 yr old Yale student who was found in a compartment in her own lab building last year – these types of crimes are trying to be prevented through the security cameras at NYU.


    It may to seem to some as an inconvenience but these cameras do help when it comes to our safety, and possibly as evidence if need be for attacks.

    To answer your question – (after the patriot act)


    - all of those who reside in this country will have to sacrifice their privacy in order to remain safe, against the supposed war on “terrorism.”

  7. mushon 12:04, Jan 26th, 10

    Amanda (agmichael) said:

    …Nothing I’m doing on the street constitutes what I consider “private time,” especially since there are already innumerable sets of human eyes watching me;…

    The issue I have with this statement is that it assumes private/public as a binary axis. It is not either private or public, there are shades of gray that should be addressed (and would be addressed next week actually). I see it more as a matter of control. You should know if you’re being watched and what is the public context of your actions. This is an intrinsic part of our experience of public space. By documenting the street life and by using concealed cameras we are depriving pedestrians of this control.

    Artist Gill Magid who works a lot with the issue of surveillance has created a project where she got the Amsterdam police dept. to hire her as a CCTV cameras decorator.

    Oh, and one more thing. I saw this on billboards in Berlin and sorry, I had to… (kinda) NSFW.

  8. juliette b 17:09, Jan 26th, 10

    Eventhough I have nothing to hide, I am definitely not confortable with the idea of being watched 24/7 and espacially without knowing it!!!

    I really feel that the state has always more means to track us down. As long as we are living in a democracy that’s fine but what if things were to change….???

    Public space have been turned into areas of control. So much so that for solving the overpopulation of jails the french government is considering to release prisoners in the public space but with an electronic bracelet to control them.
    Public space is so controlled that it could be use as a jail!

    PS : Great ad! Actually this Diesel campaign has just been launched in NY as well. You can see plainty of these at West 4th station!

  9. Harris 19:09, Jan 26th, 10

    My concerns with security cameras and other forms of surveillance go beyond the discomfort of being watched or having to carry identification documents.

    If Obama wants to know where I go, who I call and what books I borrow from the NYU Library, sure! But how do I know another Bush will not come in power three years later and detain me or send me to Guantanamo Bay because my political opinions do not fall in the mainstream?