"Surveillance Society"

A nice article in am New York over the weekend, looking at the growing number of cameras in New York City. It's a well balanced piece and raises a number of points of discussion, including some great commentary from Desmond Smyth, president of SecureWatch 24. First, the issue: They're everywhere and they're watching. New York has become Camera City as our every coming and going is recorded. Dropping off at the dry cleaners? Getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Crossing the street? Smile, for better or worse you're on someone's security camera, whether it's the city's, shopkeepers' or some nutjob's. A single busy block in Manhattan can contain hundreds. "You don't know who's watching you," said Nicole Labruto, 24, of Woodside, Queens. "You don't even know if there's a tape in there. It's creepy." For other New Yorkers it's added security. "Unless you're doing something wrong, you shouldn't worry," said Tracy Sugalski, 28, who lives near Union Square. "It sounds like a lot, but in New York City aren't we always being watched?" I think it's unfortunate that they lead with the idea that New York has become "Camera City," and that's "creepy," then get around to the rejoinder, but I guess that's to be expected. I mean, New York also has more cabs than anywhere else. Is it "cab city"? If you're going to do a thought piece, which isn't actually generated by a news event, I think you should start off a little more neutral and philosophical. Especially considering the results of their poll, which showed when I voted that just 20 percent of respondents were made "nervous" by the video surveillance. Anyway, they get on to some meatier stuff: Placement of cameras is governed by the reasonable expectation of privacy, which does not extend far beyond one's home, hotel rooms, bathrooms, gyms, and changing rooms. Streets, stores, and the workplace are not private. For security and surveillance experts, the real question privacy starts after the images are taken. "I go into hotels all the time, I see digital video recorders with burners in there," said Desmond Smyth, president of SecureWatch 24, a Manhattan-based security company with some 11,000 cameras. "It's just amazing to me. That's where their liability is. Who's to say these guys aren't just watching pretty girls?" This, for me - and I've written about it before - is the real issue with video surveillance: We do not yet have appropriate legislation governing the use of recorded video. Who gets to view it? How long is it kept for? How is it stored? How is it compressed? I think it's definitely shady that a hotel could theoretically record you falling down in their lobby and then post it to YouTube as a gag video. How would I ever know it was there? I've got to agree with the NYCLU on this point: The NYPD's recently released plan to protect the city by installing some 3,000 additional cameras in the city raised concern at the NYCLU because it takes a new step in surveillance by creating a database of license plates and people's movements. The police said the images, including license plate captures, would be erased after 30 days. The NYCLU's concern is they have not seen any written policy that described how the images would be protected and if they would be shared with other agencies. It's not about the surveillance, it's about how the surveillance is used, and it's about avoiding ambiguity. As long as everyone sees the policies, they can either agree or disagree, and use our democratic process to do something about something they disagree with. But if there's no written policy, it creates suspicion and skepticism and makes thoughtful people uneasy. What if it was up to the police officer how much to fine you for speeding, sometimes docking you $10, sometimes $500? You'd flip out. Well, what if sometimes the video of you walking down the street was erased in one day, and sometimes it was posted online to make fun of your outfit? Or, less hyperbolically, what if it was passed around the police station internally, commenting on your physical assets? Don't think that doesn't happen.