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Tag Archives: Civil liberties

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.