NEW YORK – While thousands of surveillance cameras across the country cast their lenses on people every day, not everyone is ready for their close up.
So camera-shy people will be relieved to know that several privacy groups have set up inventive programs to further the anti-surveillance cause.
A new Web-based application called iSee charts the locations of closed-circuit TV surveillance cameras and offers less-surveyed routes around certain urban areas. Simply click on a start point and a final destination, and the path of least surveillance will be mapped out in a matter of moments.
The program, created by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a secretive technological research and development organization, so far has only mapped New York City. But it hopes to also cover Chicago, Seattle and possibly London next.
"We've designed iSee to be useful to a wide range of ordinary people," an "IAA operative," who declined to be identified, told Wired.com.
According to privacy advocate Bill Brown, "iSee has a usefulness because some people will get the message that there are so many cameras. The problem is, in the meantime it looks and acts like a video game. [It] is bad for people to just try to walk around cameras. We don't want people to walk around them — we want them taken down."
But mapping out camera locales doesn't bother Terry Ottinger, president of United Security Alliance Inc. in Tampa, Fla., a company that sells, services and installs the cameras.
"I would hope the cameras are obviously placed and have signage nearby stating where they are, so criminals can see them and the public knows where they are," he said. "Just like a marked police patrol car, marked cameras have a deterrent effect on crime."
But some scoff at the notion that cameras prevent crime.
"CCTV is not terribly effective either in preventing attacks or in identifying suspects," the IAA operative told Wired.com. "As a result, terrorists spend remarkably little time worrying about the locations of surveillance cameras."
Brown is more interested in seeking out cameras than avoiding them. A proofreader by day, he leads a free weekly walking tour of New York City, pointing out cameras in several neighborhoods. Groups, including curious tourists and locals of all ages, show up to attend the tours, where they receive maps drafted by Brown.
He has also founded The Surveillance Camera Players, a group that performs short plays such as George Orwell's 1984 in front of cameras placed in crowded areas like Times Square.
"The tours teach people what a camera looks like, how many there really are, and how to find them," he said. "The performances start discussions … is it appropriate to have a camera there? Do we feel more comfortable with a police officer there or a camera? It helps people think about things without us pushing ideas on them."
Brown and his group also travel internationally once a year to perform and spread the word about surveillance. And there are now similar troupes active in Arizona, San Francisco and in several European cities.
And while their plays are meant as a form of protest, they are done with humor. Brown chose the play Waiting for Godot for its irony. "All of our performances are silent, as there is no sound heard through these cameras," he explained. "Godot is a play totally based on dialogue. There is no action."
Brown's performances often highlight his subtle sense of humor. But he feels strongly about privacy rights.
"What everyone loves about New York City is that you can come here, merge into a crowd and come out as someone else. Cameras destroy the feeling of being able to disappear into the crowd."
Chris Johnson, coordinator for the New York Civil Liberties Union's Surveillance Camera Project, unveiled a map of Manhattan's outdoor video surveillance cameras in December 1998. The project took under a year to complete, and spotted 2,397 cameras.
"Our concerns now are the same as they were when we started this project," Johnson said. "We want to raise awareness of the prevalence of video surveillance."
Johnson said another canvassing of the city to update the camera count is in the works.