Surveying Surveillance in NYC

by Chase Clow & Z. S. Justus

Recently the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department (NYPD) over its plan to use 3,000 surveillance cameras to help secure lower Manhattan against terrorist attacks. The NYCLU is chiefly concerned with the data the thousands of closed-circuit cameras captures. They are asking legitimate questions like:

  • How will it be used?
  • How will it be stored?
  • Who will have access to the data?

Citing the public’s right to such information, the NYCLU is demanding its release. While not saying it outright, the NYCLU appears to be concerned with the panoptic glare of the NYPD, the control of non-terrorist, law-abiding citizens, and an unneeded, unwanted, and unnecessary invasion of privacy.

To begin, the 3,000 surveillance cameras, or the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative as it has been deemed, appear to be all seeing. The cameras monitor everyday activities such as walking to work, eating a quick meal, and taking a taxi. This “all-seeing” power provokes comparisons to what philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s envisioned as a perfect prison: the panopticon. In Bentham’s model a single guard can watch over a large number of prisoners by being placed in a tower in the middle of a prison yard behind one-way glass. The guard can see the prisoners, but the prisoners cannot see the guard. This is an important feature, as the inmates never know when they are actually being observed. As a result, the inmates have to self-regulate their behavior.

Likewise, in regards to the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, everyday citizens, not just terrorists or prisoners, appear to be placed in a modern-day panopticon; their actions are constantly monitored and one does not know how, when, or if that information is going to be used. Will non-terrorist citizens be forced to self-regulate and conform as well? How will the NYPD use the information these cameras capture? Will the information be used to convict jay-walkers, commuters with expired license plates, or smokers in a bar? More information would make the public rest easier in terms of their civil liberties, but might also decrease the effectiveness of the system. For instance, a current project, isee, provides New Yorkers with directions to the “paths of least surveillance.”

The balance of civil liberties and security is always a tenuous one. However, the stakes are especially high in this instance. People change their behavior when they think they are being watched. Sometimes the change is for the better, but some change is inevitable. Another implication of this project is that it effectively marks all of lower Manhattan as an area of extreme importance to national security. There are certainly many places like this in the country, nuclear plants, the Pentagon, public works projects like dams just to name a few, but the prospect of securing an entire town through digital surveillance is new to Americans and it is not a decision to be taken lightly.