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NYCLU on surveillance cameras: a critique

SCP typing pool | 17.12.2006 04:21 | Analysis | Repression | Technology | World

The New York Civil Liberties Union (USA) has released a study on NYPD use of surveillance cameras in public places. This is our critique.

"Daily News" makes it readable
"Daily News" makes it readable

Too little too late

On 13 December 2006, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) released a fairly short (19-page-long) and long-delayed report on the use of video surveillance cameras in New York City. Entitled Who's Watching? Video Camera Surveillance in New York City and the Need for Public Oversight, it updates the NYCLU's first report on the subject, which was called New York City: A Surveillance Camera Town and released on 11 December 1998.

What's the news? Over the course of the last eight years, the number of surveillance cameras installed in public places has dramatically increased. While there were a total of 2,397 cameras in all of Manhattan in 1998, there are now that many cameras in a single area (Greenwich Village/SoHo). The vast majority of these cameras are privately owned; all of them have been installed "in the absence of legal or regulatory constraint" (NYCLU press release, 13 December 2006).

It's gratifying that the New York City mainstream media (Newsday, the New York Post, the Daily News, NY1 et al) have covered the story and, with no exceptions, in a fairly straightforward and neutral tone. Only The New York Times bothered to get the NYPD's response to the release of the report: "Paul J. Browne, the Police Department's chief spokesman, said in a statement responding to the report that cameras were 'a highly effective crime-fighting tool, responsible for a 35 percent reduction in crime in public housing soon after their installation in public spaces there.'" Note (the Times doesn't) that Browne's example dates from 1997-1998, that is to say, before September 11th, the day that supposedly everything changed.

The NYCLU's "new" maps aren't really fresh: they were mostly made in the summer/fall of 2005. In an article that was distributed by the Associated Press on 14 August 2005, Tom Hays wrote: "But the map could be obsolete on arrival. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to spend up to $250 million to install new surveillance cameras in the city's vast subway system. The New York Police Department also has requested funding for about 400 [sic] digital video cameras to help combat robberies and burglaries in busy commercial districts." Just as the current NYPD proposal calls for the installation of 505, not 400, digital video cameras, there are certainly more cameras in operation today than there were in August 2005.

Indeed, it seems that the majority of the NYCLU's report was written in 2005; it certainly includes more anecdotes about 2004 than about 2006. For example: the report generally concentrates on plans for the future, such as the law that would require each of Manhattan's 250 private nightclubs to maintain both internal and external cameras, but does not focus (even briefly) upon newly installed camera systems. And so the report does not inform its readers of what's really going on in NYC as we approach 2007: not only are the $250 million surveillance cameras currently being installed in the city's subway stations linked together by "state of the art" fiber-optic cables, but they are also being installed in such great numbers that there is one digital camera for each side of each and every turnstile. (Check out the downtown 1 train at 50th Street in Manhattan: yup, you counted correctly: 14 globe-shaped fiber-optically linked digital cameras in that one station. If they are such good cameras, why do there have to be so many of them?)

Another example of the slightly stale quality of the NYCLU report: it mentions (in a footnote) that -- thanks to $9.8 million from the Federal Department of Homeland Security -- the NYPD is "in the process" of creating "a linked system of cameras [the 505 mentioned above] to be viewed and operated from a control center," but fails to provide any pictures (which, as you will see, are important) or to note that this system of continuously broadcasting, wireless cameras can in fact be viewed by almost anyone (cops with hand-held devices, cops in squad cars or helicopters, and unknown unknowns who might have unauthorized access to a borrowed or stolen piece of NYPD technology or simple access to the feeds from the cameras themselves). A very high-priced WiFi network for police video cameras/digital servers, it is also a very insecure "security" system! It is also unlikely that the radiation constantly emitted by the new, wireless NYPD cameras is good for the public health.

Readers of this statement who have also visited our website will already know that we, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) -- a New York City-based anti-camera group founded in 1996 -- have been announcing virtually the same news since June 2004: camera growth-rates of 300 percent, 500 percent, even 1,400 percent, depending on the neighborhood; almost all of the increase among private owners, not the NYPD or the Department of Transportation (DOT); the complete absence of regulation or oversight; and more (the role of the insurance industry; the use of small cameras with infra-red filters; wireless cameras; cell phones and GPS tracking). It pains us to say this -- we greatly appreciate and have been inspired by the NYCLU's efforts, and we have in fact worked with this organization (in 2004 and 2005, we helped train their volunteers to spot and map surveillance cameras, and so we are among the two dozen other names selected for "thanks" in the NYCLU's new report) -- but the absence of really fresh, useful information is not the report's only failing.

The maps are terrible. They do not distinguish privately owned cameras from NYPD cameras: if it is a camera, it gets a dot. This clearly blurs the report's exclusive focus on the importance of NYPD cameras, which are out-numbered 10 to 1 by privately owned cameras, and it also leaves out the thousands of cameras operated by the DOT, which, at both the state and federal levels, has been absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security. What was a "passive, flow-monitoring device" for local consumption in 1999 is now part of the "war on terrorism."

It turns out -- another footnote -- that, on all the "new" maps, "a single dot may represent more than one camera." Exactly how many more cameras? The report doesn't say. It gets worse: the maps only mark out a few main thoroughfares in each neighborhood; there are no cross-streets; there is no "grid." This makes the cameras virtually impossible to find. Note that, when it re-published the NYCLU's map of Harlem, the Daily News made sure to overlap a proper street plan upon it (see below).

Another failing is the fact that the report does not accurately represent the conclusions of the last decade's worth of "scientific" research into the actual effectiveness of publicly installed surveillance cameras and/or the report doesn't make effective rhetorical or polemical use of the existing data that shows that such cameras are not effective. We've kept a blog about the ineffectiveness of video surveillance: between 2002 and 2006, there have been 10 major news stories that have made this claim, and they have reflected years of experience in England, Wales, Scotland, Australia and the United States (Kentucky, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia).

Choosing its words way too carefully, the NYCLU report says that "the final report of the General Accounting Office, published in June 2003, concluded that there was simply not enough evidence to determine whether cameras were preventing crime." But this is not the same thing as saying, "There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the cameras are not preventing crime" -- which is precisely what the NYCLU should be saying. Who else is going to say it if the NYCLU doesn't?

Indeed, the NYCLU's own report contains good evidence for such a claim: "The study [by the British Home Office, dated February 2005] found a statistically significant crime reduction in only one of the thirteen areas that had been under surveillance. Seven of the thirteen had actually seen increases in crime rates." Though the NYCLU does not say so, nor even use these terms, this result -- little decrease where you wanted it, a big increase where you didn't expect it, in other words: the worst of both worlds -- is commonly found among English researchers: if they do anything at all, surveillance cameras "displace" crime from one area to another, which inevitably means that "crime" actually rises in the unsurveilled areas that surround a heavily surveilled place.

Here's the same thing at a different, "higher" and more lethal level. The NYCLU report says, "There is also a dearth of empirical evidence to support the proposition that surveillance cameras deter acts of terrorism." This is an unnecessarily weak phrasing of the following: "There is plenty of evidence to support the proposition that surveillance cameras do not deter acts of terrorism." Once again the NYCLU report doesn't say so or even mention the phrase: no surveillance system in the world has, can or will ever deter a "suicide bomber." Especially if a suicide bomber wishes to become a martyr and needs photographic documentation of his or her martyrdom to facilitate the compensation of his or her family -- this is in fact the purpose of the pictures taken of suicide bombers right before they go out on their missions -- , then video surveillance systems at "high-profile potential targets" is useless, if not actually harmful (an opportunity to be exploited, rather than a deterrent to be avoided).

The report's recommendations are exclusively focused on "legislation," that is to say, on local laws and regulations drafted, mandated and enforced by the City Council of New York City. Mayor Bloomberg is mentioned, but he is clearly not the person to whom the report is really addressed. Then again, it is difficult to imagine to whom this report is in fact addressed. Curiously, there are no recommendations or appeals to NYC's lawyers, judges, constitutional experts, law professors or other scholars. There are no recommendations or appeals to the new governor of the State of New York, who is a Democrat, not a Republican, like his predecessor, and who, as NY State Attorney General (1999), warned the NYPD about its use of racial profiling in its "stop and frisk" policies. Eliot Spitzer might well change state policy when it comes to funding and maintaining the State DOT's "red-light" traffic surveillance cameras, which are scattered throughout NYC. But all we get is this: "New York City must enact comprehensive, well-crafted legislation that recognizes video surveillance affects fundamental rights and liberties, and that the use of such technology must reasonably balance the city's interest in protecting public safety with the individual's interest in enjoying personal privacy." The NYCLU report does not include a model or sketch of what such legislation might or should look like. If they don't write it, who else will? Who else could be trusted to write it?

What the report does include is a group of five detailed recommendations concerning:

1) the "scope and purpose" of all new NYPD cameras, which must be described in detail, and "the city must adopt legislation that mandates procedures for determining whether surveillance cameras will accomplish public safety objectives." Note well that privately owned cameras, which have no bearing at all on "public safety objectives," are not included nor even mentioned.

2) adequate "public notice" of all plans to install new NYPD cameras (except "under exigent circumstances and when the CCTV systems are deployed pursuant to a court order") and convenient opportunity for the public to "comment" on such proposals. Note that there is no recommendation that all new police cameras must be accompanied by visible and plainly worded signs, as is required in the United Kingdom and recommended by the Security Industry Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Note as well that the NYCLU report doesn't mention that the signs that currently appear on many of the New York City Housing Authority buildings (surveilled by the NYPD's "VIPER" units) are bizarrely worded: "Select areas may be randomly monitored by the NYPD." Why have the "evildoers" of the world play this kind of guessing game concerning space and time? Why not simply assure them, even or especially if it is not true, that all areas are monitored all the time?

3) adequate "training and supervision of personnel," which seems to primarily hinge on training with respect to the "ethical limits of CCTV use," the "ethical issues involved in surveillance activities," and only secondarily on training in "applicable civil and criminal law." This is indeed the crux of the problem and it remains unaddressed by the NYCLU's report: there is a human rights crisis emerging in NYC and the USA as a whole because "applicable civil and criminal law" has failed to keep up with the "proactive" arrogance and cynicism of our putative leaders in the political, law enforcement and corporate worlds (who took advantage of the declining cost and increased technological abilities of video/digital/infra-red cameras to install them all over the place). As a result, today, our "ethical sense" -- our moral outrage, really -- is all we have left when faced with a vast and intrusive surveillance infrastructure that has been constructed in a legal vacuum.

And that's obviously not enough. The NYCLU's report should have insisted upon and developed both the legal and "ethical" precedents for the right(s) to privacy, anonymity and being left alone. For example: the history and text of the Fourth Amendment. The NYCLU should also have noted that, when it comes to automated surveillance and tracking systems -- such as face recognition software, biometrics in general, automobile license-plate readers, radio frequency ID chips, cell-phone tracking via GPS or cell-phone towers, etc, none of which are mentioned in the report -- "ethical issues" are completely irrelevant. Algorithms have no ethics and can't be swayed by moral outrage.

4) proper "storage and retention" of video surveillance images, and restricted "access to and dissemination of such video images." Curiously, the NYCLU does not mention that the fact that few publicly recorded surveillance tapes are actually used in court, that is, submitted to and accepted by judges as legal evidence, and that most tapes are used to convince the defendant(s) to plead guilty to lesser charges, thereby avoiding trial all-together and sparing the police/prosecutors the difficulty of securely warehousing and maintaining the proper "chain of custody" for their videotapes.

5) explicit "prohibitions and penalties" concerning the abuse of "camera practices," which means both the cameras themselves (what they are focusing upon) and any tapes made of what they have "captured." To us, the most significant sentence here is the one that both concludes this fifth recommendation and the report as a whole: "In order to enforce these provisions and to ensure accountability for the operation of video surveillance cameras, the city should establish and publicize procedures for collecting, handling and redressing complaints of abuse by members of the police." But instead of starting up the video-surveillance equivalent of the Civil Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which presumably would handle complaints concerning proposed and newly installed NYPD cameras, it seems clear -- given the incredible proliferation of cameras, perhaps as many as 50,000 in NYC as a whole -- what's needed is 1) an immediate moratorium on the installation of any and all new surveillance cameras in the city, during which 2) the City Council or a CCRB-like entity would receive and have to follow up upon complaints about existing cameras, and, if any or all of these cameras could not satisfy the requirements set out in "scope and purpose" and "training and supervision of personnel," they would have to be taken down. Once (if and only if) this process has been completed, then legislated regulation of proposed camera installations can begin.

We do not mean to imply that we have all the answers: we don't. Nor do we mean to imply that we are the most radical or extreme anti-surveillance camera group in the world: we aren't. That distinction belongs to the many anonymous camera-destroying "groups" in England, Greece, and Australia. Indeed, precisely because we are not the world's most extreme group allows us to suggest the relative conservatism of the NYCLU's positions. We contend we need something that is more daring, more "proactive": instead of settling for trying to update the First, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution (these are the ones, to our mind, that seem implicated by the unregulated and ubiquitous use of police surveillance cameras in public places), it would seem better to a start a movement to amend the New York State constitution, so that its privacy provisions are not only strengthened but widened so as to account for and get ahead of micro-digital video technology, which would thus have to struggle to keep up with the law, rather than the reverse.

Our position also allows us highlight (critique, not judge) the weakness of extremist or "direct action": unlike reformism, which literally asks the "social question" ("What kind of society do we want to live in?"), but doesn't answer it for fear of alienating an already skeptical audience, single-issue extremism doesn't and, indeed, can't ask the social question -- beyond the obvious negation "We want a society without surveillance cameras" -- because speaking about what we -- as private individuals and as citizens -- want is incompatible with the clandestinity required by extremist groups.

Surveillance Camera Players
New York City
16 December 2006

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  1. NYC traffic cams better than BBC's. — Itsme
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