All Eyes on New York, and Who Knows Who's Watching


New York City is about to be scruitinized beneath the watchful eyes of thousands of security cameras.

The thought of public surveillance is unnerving enough on its own. It conjures images of Orson Well’s "Big Brother" society, strangled beneath a constant, nameless gaze. However nowadays surveillance cameras take on an added creepiness, as we realize not just anybody but also everybody could be watching.

More than 3,000 cameras, over half of them privately owned, are scheduled for installation on the city streets by 2010, writes Cara Buckley for The New York Times today. The project, dubbed the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, will be coordinated by the police. The question is, will the footage be limited to them?

Over the past few years, video and internet technology have flung open the door for a wide distribution of images. From the growing popularity of internet video to new publication venues like You Tube, it has become easier than ever to spread media without the consent of image subjects.

My new fear, then, is that the hours of content the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative intends to generate will not remain exclusive to its "Big Brother" posse of police and security professionals, but will leak to the internet, spread to the public, and compromise personal privacy more broadly than ever before.

Why anyone would want to steal or even watch footage of city surveillance cameras I can only imagine, but concerns over image access, oversight, and security have already been raised by civil liberty advocates, as Buckley writes. It’s a new world out there on the internet, and if the city is committed to this project it will need to take every precaution.

Buckley’s article paraphrases the NYPD’s spokesperson with the expected defense that "Law-abiding citizens will have nothing to fear." They will, unfortunately: and more than ever, thanks to the bandwidth of the times.