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
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,
recently, in more obscure law called the US Visa and Immigrant Status Indicator
Technology -- US-VISIT for short -- which went into effect this month.
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
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
â€˘ Current privacy laws are not well-suited to the
problems of quickly changing technology
â€˘ Inaccurate information in databases may lead to false
â€˘ Useless and time-consuming searches
are being done
â€˘ Security guidelines are not in place.
The Electronic Privacy Information
created an Electronic Privacy Threat Index to counter the Homeland
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.
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