There are now three times as many surveillance cameras on the streets of New York as there were six years ago - an estimated 7,200, often disguised as street lamps.
This is according to the New York Civil Liberty Union's NYC Surveillance Camera Project, which has been researching the location of the cameras since 1998. The Surveillance Camera Players have created maps of the publicly-installed cameras in the city.
The increase in these cameras is partially the result of heightened fears about terrorism after 9/11, and they do make some people feel more secure, according to the New York City Police Department -- since 1997, crime has fallen near 15 housing developments that are monitored.
But they also point at least indirectly to the Bush administration's security policies. Those policies have their most direct _expression in the USA Patriot Act, approved by Congress in October 2002 and, more recently, in more obscure law called the US Visa and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology -- US-VISIT for short -- which went into effect this month.
Experts argue that both laws are eroding privacy and civil liberties in the name of securing the country against terrorism. And technology plays a key role in the enforcement of both of them, in particular, digital images and video as well as databases of personal information.
USA PATRIOT ACT
The USA Patriot Actexpands the government's access to personal records of citizens' activities held by third parties. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, "at a time when computerization is leading to the creation of more and more such records, the Patriot Act allows the FBI to force anyone at all - including doctors, libraries, bookstores, universities, and Internet service providers - to turn over records on their clients or customers."
There are several privacy and civil liberty concerns, as enumerated by the Brookings Institution:
â€˘ Current privacy laws are not well-suited to the problems of quickly changing technology
â€˘ Inaccurate information in databases may lead to false identifications
â€˘ Useless and time-consuming searches are being done
â€˘ Security guidelines are not in place.
This is where all those surveillance cameras in New York start to worry civil libertarians.
In midtown alone, there were a total of 284 surveillance cameras documented last May, up from 190 documented the previous January. The vast majority of these cameras, 258, are owned by the private sector, followed by nine owned by foreign embassies, seven by the New York Police Department or Department of Transportation, and only six by the federal government.
However, as a result of the Patriot Act, all the tapes from all the cameras could become available for government viewing.
If that seems unthreatening, think on this: the Patriot Act also allows for government access to information contained in the subject line of e-mails and the addresses of Web sites visited.
New York may be one of an international city, but thanks to the new US-VISIT policy, foreigners (US visa holders and immigrants) arriving at John F. Kennedy airport this year are being treated as threats. They must undergo an extra 15 seconds of fingerprinting and digital photographing. The law, which will cost $7 billion over 12 years, will track about 24 million people at 115 airports and 14 seaports. The prints and photos are compared with lists of criminals and terrorists.
According to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, US-VISIT is "part of a comprehensive program to ensure that our borders remain open to visitors but closed to terrorists." However, the law has already drawn intense criticism from a number of Washington think-tanks including the libertarian Cato Institute and liberal Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Charles V. PeĂ±a, director of defense policy at the Cato Institute, offers a number of reasons why US-VISIT does not make sense. First is the exemption the law provides to visitors from 28 countries, including Great Britain, France and Germany. Assuming that US or European Union passport holders pose less of a threat of terrorism is a mistake. In addition, the program is at fault because it collects too much data (and stores it in a government database) even though only a tiny percentage of it might be useful in catching terrorists.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed comments about US-VISIT urging the Department of Homeland Security to abide by existing Privacy Act requirements, reduce its proposal to retain Data for 100 years, and consider international privacy standards.
More Data, Not Brains
The Republican-led initiatives designed to secure the country against terrorism following 9/11 seem to share a critical flaw. To get more data is not necessarily to get better data. As the images of New Yorkers are captured on camera and stored in databases, there is no guarantee that we are living in a safer city.
Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.