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You Are Being Watched!

Barry Steinhardt,
Technology & Liberty Program
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January 12, 2009

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

You are being watched! Once that might have just been the ravings of a paranoid, but increasingly it’s all too true. More and more of the public spaces in America are being plastered by video surveillance cameras — and increasingly, the “they” behind those cameras is not a disconnected collection of shopkeepers and building security guards, but the government itself. One of the big trends that we are seeing in the past few years is video surveillance that is 1) run by the government and 2) made up of a network of cameras, centrally controlled.

And the images captured by those cameras are no longer spinning away harmlessly on old, recycled VHS cassettes. Today they are digital. They can be stored, archived, and indexed on today’s nearly limitless hard drives.

The bottom line: we’re quickly moving into an entirely new era. I get calls from reporters all the time asking, “how many video cameras are there in America?” or “How often is the average American filmed by cameras?” or “How many cities are building government camera systems?” I’ve never been able to supply precise answers to these questions, and usually suggest they try calling camera industry sources. We may never know how many private cameras are out there, but governments must, at least, reveal when they are building a system. So we’ve decided to build a web site to at least track how many of these new government-run surveillance systems are being deployed. The site, called, will serve as an information clearinghouse to track the deployment of those kinds of systems in the U.S.

Among the most serious new systems we’re seeing are those in Manhattan and Chicago. Police authorities in New York City announced in July 2007 that they were planning to create a London-style “Ring of Steel” network of pervasive surveillance in downtown Manhattan, which will include cameras trained on cars and license plates tracking all vehicles, as well as thousands of other public and private surveillance cameras, and a central location from which they are monitored by police. The cameras may well be paired with face recognition technology in attempt to identify not only cars, but the occupants. Chicago, meanwhile, which has been pouring money into its own camera system, recently announced the installation of automated image analysis software into its extensive camera system.

The entire paradigm of video surveillance in the United States has shifted. We have moved from periodic installation of hard-to-search analog video cameras to the vision of a pervasive, unified system that uses a variety of technologies to track individuals and their movements. These systems reflect the power of the convergence of technologies. By combining cameras, computerized image analysis, RFID sensors, and down the road potentially other technologies such as GPS, these systems show how new surveillance technologies are becoming far more powerful in combination than in isolation. The “Ring of Steel” vision threaten to become the perfect storm of always-on, pervasive government surveillance.

A lot of this new video surveillance activity is being driven by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is distributing grants grants to localities for that purpose. In effect, DHS is allowing local police to circumvent the local democratic and budgetmaking process and serving as an enabler for such departments when they wish to waste resources (including police officers’ time) on surveillance systems.

Our new site includes a flash map of the United States showing the location of cities that have installed municipal surveillance cameras, a compendium of press clips and other information about camera deployments, links to studies on the effectiveness of surveillance cameras and other information about the issue, and a “take action” function that allows you to send a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security on this issue.

It may take time for the harm and waste of these camera systems to become apparent to the American people. Meanwhile, we are at least tracking what’s going on.

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