NYC Surveillance Camera Project*

Surveillance Camera News October 2001

A Cautionary Tale for a New Age of Surveillance

October 7, 2001

A Cautionary Tale for a New Age of Surveillance


     week after the attacks of Sept. 11, as the
     value of most American stocks plummeted,
a few companies, with products particularly well
suited for a new and anxious age, soared in value.
One of the fastest growing stocks was Visionics,
whose price more than tripled. The New Jersey
company is an industry leader in the fledgling
science of biometrics, a method of identifying
people by scanning and quantifying their unique
physical characteristics -- their facial structures, for
example, or their retinal patterns. Visionics
manufactures a face-recognition technology called
FaceIt, which creates identification codes for
individuals based on 80 unique aspects of their
facial structures, like the width of the nose and the
location of the temples. FaceIt can instantly
compare an image of any individual's face with a
database of the faces of suspected terrorists, or
anyone else. 

Visionics was quick to understand that the terrorist
attacks represented not only a tragedy but also a
business opportunity. On the afternoon of Sept.
11, the company sent out an e-mail message to
reporters, announcing that its founder and C.E.O.,
Joseph Atick, ''has been speaking worldwide
about the need for biometric systems to catch
known terrorists and wanted criminals.'' On Sept.
20, Atick testified before a special government
committee appointed by the secretary of
transportation, Norman Mineta. Atick's message
-- that security in airports and embassies could be
improved using face-recognition technology as
part of a comprehensive national surveillance plan
that he called Operation Noble Shield -- was
greeted enthusiastically by members of the
committee, which seemed ready to endorse his
recommendations. ''In the war against terrorism,
especially when it comes to the homeland
defense,'' Atick told me, describing his testimony,
''the cornerstone of this is going to be our ability to
identify the enemy before he or she enters into
areas where public safety could be at risk.' 

Atick proposes to wire up Reagan National
Airport in Washington and other vulnerable
airports throughout the country with more than
300 cameras each. Cameras would scan the faces
of passengers standing in line, and biometric
technology would be used to analyze their faces
and make sure they are not on an international
terrorist ''watch list.'' More cameras unobtrusively
installed throughout the airport could identify
passengers as they walk through metal detectors
and public areas. And a final scan could ensure
that no suspected terrorist boards a plane. ''We
have created a biometric network platform that
turns every camera into a Web browser submitting
images to a database in Washington, querying for
matches,'' Atick said. ''If a match occurs, it will set
off an alarm in Washington, and someone will
make a decision to wire the image to marshals at
the airport.'' 

Of course, protecting airports is only one aspect of
homeland security: a terrorist could be lurking on
any corner in America. In the wake of the Sept.
11 attacks, Howard Safir, the former New York
police commissioner, recommended the installation
of 100 biometric surveillance cameras in Times
Square to scan the faces of pedestrians and
compare them with a database of suspected
terrorists. Atick told me that since the attacks he
has been approached by local and federal
authorities from across the country about the
possibility of installing biometric surveillance
cameras in stadiums and subway systems and near
national monuments. ''The Office of Homeland
Security might be the overall umbrella that will
coordinate with local police forces'' to install
cameras linked to a biometric network throughout
American cities, Atick told me. ''How can we be
alerted when someone is entering the subway?
How can we be sure when someone is entering
Madison Square Garden? How can we protect
monuments? We need to create an invisible fence,
an invisible shield.'' 

Before Sept. 11, the idea that Americans would
voluntarily agree to live their lives under the gaze of
a network of biometric surveillance cameras,
peering at them in government buildings, shopping
malls, subways and stadiums, would have seemed
unthinkable, a dystopian fantasy of a society that
had surrendered privacy and anonymity. But in
fact, over the past decade, this precise state of
affairs has materialized, not in the United States
but in the United Kingdom. At the beginning of
September, as it happened, I was in Britain,
observing what now looks like a glimpse of the
American future. 

I had gone to Britain to answer a question that
seems far more pertinent today than it did early
last month: why would a free and flourishing
Western democracy wire itself up with so many
closed-circuit television cameras that it resembles
the set of ''The Real World'' or ''The Truman
Show''? The answer, I discovered, was fear of
terrorism. In 1993 and 1994, two terrorist bombs
planted by the I.R.A. exploded in London's
financial district, a historic and densely packed
square mile known as the City of London. In
response to widespread public anxiety about
terrorism, the government decided to install a ''ring
of steel'' -- a network of closed-circuit television
cameras mounted on the eight official entry gates
that control access to the City. 

Anxiety about terrorism didn't go away, and the
cameras in Britain continued to multiply. In 1994,
a 2-year-old boy named Jamie Bulger was
kidnapped and murdered by two 10-year-old
schoolboys, and surveillance cameras captured a
grainy shot of the killers leading their victim out of
a shopping center. Bulger's assailants couldn't, in
fact, be identified on camera -- they were caught
because they talked to their friends -- but the
video footage, replayed over and over again on
television, shook the country to its core. Riding a
wave of enthusiasm for closed-circuit television, or
CCTV, created by the attacks, John Major's
Conservative government decided to devote more
than three-quarters of its crime-prevention budget
to encourage local authorities to install CCTV. The
promise of cameras as a magic bullet against crime
and terrorism inspired one of Major's most
successful campaign slogans: ''If you've got nothing
to hide, you've got nothing to fear.'' 

Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian
intrusion, the cameras in Britain proved to be
extremely popular. They were hailed as the
people's technology, a friendly eye in the sky, not
Big Brother at all but a kindly and watchful uncle
or aunt. Local governments couldn't get enough of
them; each hamlet and fen in the British
countryside wanted its own CCTV surveillance
system, even when the most serious threat to
public safety was coming from mad cows. In
1994, 79 city centers had surveillance networks;
by 1998, 440 city centers were wired. By the late
1990's, as part of its Clintonian, center-left
campaign to be tough on crime, Tony Blair's New
Labor government decided to support the cameras
with a vengeance. There are now so many
cameras attached to so many different surveillance
systems in the U.K. that people have stopped
counting. According to one estimate, there are 2.5
million surveillance cameras in Britain, and in fact
there may be far more. 

As I filed through customs at Heathrow Airport,
there were cameras concealed in domes in the
ceiling. There were cameras pointing at the ticket
counters, at the escalators and at the tracks as I
waited for the Heathrow express to Paddington
Station. When I got out at Paddington, there were
cameras on the platform and cameras on the pillars
in the main terminal. Cameras followed me as I
walked from the main station to the underground,
and there were cameras at each of the stations on
the way to King's Cross. Outside King's Cross,
there were cameras trained on the bus stand and
the taxi stand and the sidewalk, and still more
cameras in the station. There were cameras on the
backs of buses to record people who crossed into
the wrong traffic lane. 

Throughout Britain today, there are speed cameras
and red-light cameras, cameras in lobbies and
elevators, in hotels and restaurants, in nursery
schools and high schools. There are even cameras
in hospitals. (After a raft of ''baby thefts'' in the
early 1990's, the government gave hospitals
money to install cameras in waiting rooms,
maternity wards and operating rooms.) And
everywhere there are warning signs, announcing
the presence of cameras with a jumble of different
icons, slogans and exhortations, from the bland
''CCTV in operation'' to the peppy ''CCTV:
Watching for You!'' By one estimate, the average
Briton is now photographed by 300 separate
cameras in a single day. 

Britain's experience under the watchful eye of the
CCTV cameras is a vision of what Americans can
expect if we choose to go down the same road in
our efforts to achieve ''homeland security.''
Although the cameras in Britain were initially
justified as a way of combating terrorism, they
soon came to serve a very different function. The
cameras are designed not to produce arrests but
to make people feel that they are being watched at
all times. Instead of keeping terrorists off planes,
biometric surveillance is being used to keep punks
out of shopping malls. The people behind the live
video screens are zooming in on unconventional
behavior in public that in fact has nothing to do
with terrorism. And rather than thwarting serious
crime, the cameras are being used to enforce
social conformity in ways that Americans may
prefer to avoid. 

The dream of a biometric surveillance system that
can identify people's faces in public places and
separate the innocent from the guilty is not new.
Clive Norris, a criminologist at the University of
Hull, is Britain's leading authority on the social
effects of CCTV. In his definitive study, ''The
Maximum Surveillance Society: the Rise of
CCTV,'' Norris notes that in the 19th century,
police forces in England and France began to
focus on how to distinguish the casual offender
from the ''habitual criminal'' who might evade
detection by moving from town to town. In the
1870's, Alphonse Bertillon, a records clerk at the
prefecture of police in Paris, used his knowledge
of statistics and anthropomorphic measurements to
create a system for comparing the thousands of
photographs of arrested suspects in Parisian police
stations. He took a series of measurements -- of
skull size, for example, and the distance between
the ear and chin -- and created a unique code for
every suspect whom the police had photographed.
Photographs were then grouped according to the
codes, and a new suspect could be compared only
with the photos that had similar measurements,
instead of with the entire portfolio. Though
Bertillon's system was often difficult for unskilled
clerks to administer, a procedure that had taken
hours or days was now reduced to a few minutes. 

It wasn't until the 1980's, with the development of
computerized biometric and other face-recognition
systems, that Bertillon's dream became feasible on
a broad scale. In the course of studying how
biometric scanning could be used to authenticate
the identities of people who sought admission to
secure buildings, innovators like Joseph Atick
realized that the same technology could be used to
pick suspects or license plates out of a crowd. It's
the license-plate technology that the London police
have found most attractive, because it tends to be
more reliable. (A test of the best face-recognition
systems last year by the U.S. Department of
Defense found that they failed to identify matches a
third of the time.) 

Soon after arriving in London, I visited the CCTV
monitoring room in the City of London police
station, where the British war against terrorism
began. I was met by the press officer, Tim
Parsons, and led up to the control station, a
modest-size installation that looks like an
air-traffic-control room, with uniformed officers
manning two rows of monitors. Although installed
to catch terrorists, the cameras in the City of
London spend most of their time following car
thieves and traffic offenders. ''The technology here
is geared up to terrorism,'' Parsons told me. ''The
fact that we're getting ordinary people -- burglars
stealing cars -- as a result of it is sort of a bonus.'' 

Have you caught any terrorists? I asked. ''No, not
using this technology, no,'' he replied. 

As we watched the monitors, rows of
slow-moving cars filed through the gates into the
City, and cameras recorded their license-plate
numbers and the faces of their drivers. After
several minutes, one monitor set off a soft, pinging
alarm. We had a match! But no, it was a false
alarm. The license plate that set off the system was
8620bmc, but the stolen car recorded in the
database was 8670amc. After a few more
mismatches, the machine finally found an offender,
though not a serious one. A red van had gone
through a speed camera, and the local authority
that issued the ticket couldn't identify the driver.
An alert went out on the central police national
computer, and it set off the alarm when the van
entered the City. ''We're not going to do anything
about it because it's not a desperately important
call,'' said the sergeant. 

Because the cameras on the ring of steel take clear
pictures of each driver's face, I asked whether the
City used the biometric facial recognition
technology that American airports are now being
urged to adopt. ''We're experimenting with it to
see if we could pick faces out of the crowd, but
the technology is not sufficiently good enough,''
Parsons said. ''The system that I saw
demonstrated two or three years ago, a lot of the
time it couldn't differentiate between a man and a
woman.'' (In a recent documentary about CCTV,
Monty Python's John Cleese foiled a Visionics
face-recognition system that had been set up in the
London borough of Newham by wearing earrings
and a beard.) Nevertheless, Parsons insisted that
the technology will become more accurate. ''It's
just a matter of time. Then we can use it to detect
the presence of criminals on foot in the city,'' he

In the future, as face-recognition technology
becomes more accurate, it will become even more
intrusive, because of pressures to expand the
biometric database. I mentioned to Joseph Atick
of Visionics that the City of London was thinking
about using his technology to establish a database
that would include not only terrorists but also all
British citizens whose faces were registered with
the national driver's license bureau. If that occurs,
every citizen who walks the streets of the City
could be instantly identified by the police and
evaluated in light of his past misdeeds, no matter
how trivial. With the impatience of a rationalist,
Atick dismissed the possibility. ''Technically, they
won't be able to do it without coming back to me,''
he said. ''They will have to justify it to me.'' Atick
struck me as a refined and thoughtful man (he is
the former director of the computational
neuroscience laboratory at Rockefeller University),
but it seems odd to put the liberties of a
democracy in the hands of one unelected scientist. 

Atick says that his technology is an enlightened
alternative to racial and ethnic profiling, and if the
faces in the biometric database were, in fact,
restricted to known terrorists, he would be on to
something. Instead of stopping all passengers who
appear to be Middle Eastern and victimizing
thousands of innocent people, the system would
focus with laserlike precision on a tiny handful of
the guilty. (This assumes that the terrorists aren't
cunning enough to disguise themselves.) But when
I asked whether any of the existing biometric
databases in England or America are limited to
suspected terrorists, Atick confessed that they
aren't. There is a simple reason for this: few
terrorists are suspected in advance of their crimes.
For this reason, cities in England and elsewhere
have tried to justify their investment in
face-recognition systems by filling their databases
with those troublemakers whom the authorities can
easily identify: local criminals. When FaceIt
technology was used to scan the faces of the
thousands of fans entering the Super Bowl in
Tampa last January, the matches produced by the
database weren't terrorists. They were low-level
ticket scalpers and pickpockets. 

Biometrics is a feel-good technology that is being
marketed based on a false promise -- that the
database will be limited to suspected terrorists.
But the FaceIt technology, as it's now being used
in England, isn't really intended to catch terrorists
at all. It's intended to scare local hoodlums into
thinking they might be setting off alarms even when
the cameras are turned off. I came to understand
this ''Wizard of Oz'' aspect of the technology when
I visited Bob Lack's monitoring station in the
London borough of Newham. A former London
police officer, Lack attracted national attention --
including a visit from Tony Blair -- by pioneering
the use of face-recognition technology before
other people were convinced that it was entirely
reliable. What Lack grasped early on was that
reliability was in many ways beside the point. 

Lack installed his first CCTV system in 1997, and
he intentionally exaggerated its powers from the
beginning. ''We put one camera out and 12 signs''
announcing the presence of cameras, Lack told
me. ''We reduced crime by 60 percent in the area
where we posted the signs. Then word on the
street went out that we had dummy cameras.'' So
Lack turned his attention to face-recognition
technology and tried to create the impression that
far more people's faces were in the database than
actually are. ''We've designed a poster now about
making Newham a safe place for a family,'' he
said. ''And we're telling the criminal we have this
information on him: we know his name, we know
his address, we know what crimes he commits.''
It's not true, Lack admits, ''but then, we're entitled
to disinform some people, aren't we?'' 

So you're telling the criminal that you know his
name even though you don't, I asked? ''Right,''
Lack replied. ''Pretty much that's about
advertising, isn't it?'' 

Lack was elusive when I asked him who, exactly,
is in his database. ''I don't know,'' he replied,
noting that the local police chief decides who goes
into the database. He would only make an
''educated guess'' that the database contains 100
''violent street robbers'' under the age of 18. ''You
have to have been convicted of a crime -- nobody
suspected goes on, unless they're a suspected
murderer -- and there has to be sufficient police
intelligence to say you are committing those crimes
and have been so in the last 12 weeks.'' When I
asked for the written standards that determined
who, precisely, was put in the database, and what
crimes they had to have committed, Lack
promised to send them, but he never did. 

From Lack's point of view, it doesn't matter who
is in his database, because his system isn't
designed to catch terrorists or violent criminals. In
the three years that the system has been up and
running, it hasn't resulted in a single arrest. ''I'm not
in the business of having people arrested,'' Lack
said. ''The deterrent value has far exceeded
anything you imagine.'' He told me that the alarms
went off an average of three times a day during the
month of August, but the only people he would
conclusively identify were local youths who had
volunteered to be put in the database as part of an
''intensive surveillance supervision program,'' as an
alternative to serving a custodial sentence. ''The
public statements about the efficacy of the
Newham facial-recognition system bear little
relationship to its actual operational capabilities,
which are rather weak and poor,'' says Clive
Norris of the University of Hull. ''They want
everyone to believe that they are potentially under
scrutiny. Its effectiveness, perhaps, is based on a

This lie has a venerable place in the philosophy of
surveillance. In his preface to ''Panopticon,''
Jeremy Bentham imagined the social benefits of a
ring-shaped ''inspection-house,'' in which
prisoners, students, orphans or paupers could be
subject to constant surveillance. In the center of
the courtyard would be an inspection tower with
windows facing the inner wall of the ring.
Supervisors in the central tower could observe
every movement of the inhabitants of the cells,
who were illuminated by natural lighting, but
Venetian blinds would ensure that the supervisors
could not be seen by the inhabitants. The
uncertainty about whether or not they were being
surveilled would deter the inhabitants from
antisocial behavior. Michel Foucault described the
purpose of the Panopticon -- to induce in the
inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility
that assures the automatic functioning of power.''
Foucault predicted that this condition of visible,
unverifiable power, in which individuals have
internalized the idea that they may always be under
surveillance, would be the defining characteristic of
the modern age. 

Britain, at the moment, is not quite the Panopticon,
because its various camera networks aren't linked
and there aren't enough operators to watch all the
cameras. But over the next few years, that seems
likely to change, as Britain moves toward the kind
of integrated Web-based surveillance system that
Visionics has now proposed for American airports
and subway systems. At the moment, for example,
the surveillance systems for the London
underground and the British police feed into
separate control rooms, but Sergio Velastin, a
computer-vision scientist, says he believes the two
systems will eventually be linked, using digital

Velastin is working on behavioral-recognition
technology for the London underground that can
look for unusual movements in crowds, setting off
an alarm, for example, when people appear to be
fighting or trying to jump on the tracks. (Because
human CCTV operators are easily bored and
distracted, automatic alarms are viewed as the
wave of the future.) ''Imagine you see a piece of
unattended baggage which might contain a bomb,''
Velastin told me. ''You can back-drag on the
image and locate the person who left it there. You
can say where did that person come from and
where is that person now? You can conceive in
the future that you might be able to do that for
every person in every place in the system.'' Of
course, Velastin admitted, ''if you don't have social
agreement about how you're going to operate that,
it could get out of control.'' 

Once thousands of cameras from hundreds of
separate CCTV systems are able to feed their
digital images to a central monitoring station, and
the images can be analyzed with face- and
behavioral-recognition software to identify unusual
patterns, then the possibilities of the Panopticon
will suddenly become very real. And few people
doubt that connectivity is around the corner; it is,
in fact, the next step. ''CCTV will become the fifth
utility: after gas, electricity, sewage and
telecommunications,'' says Jason Ditton, a
criminologist at the University of Sheffield who is
critical of the technology's expansion. ''We will
come to accept its ubiquitousness.'' 

At the moment, there is only one fully integrated
CCTV in Britain: it transmits digital images over a
broadband wireless network, like the one Joseph
Atick has proposed for American airports, rather
than relying on traditional video cameras that are
chained to dedicated cables. And so, for a still
clearer vision of the interconnected future of
surveillance, I set off for Hull, Britain's leading
timber port, about three hours northeast of
London. Hull has traditionally been associated not
with dystopian fantasies but with fantasies of a
more basic sort: for hundreds of years, it has been
the prostitution capital of northeastern Britain. 

Six years ago, a heroin epidemic created an influx
of addicted young women who took to
streetwalking to sustain their drug habit. Nearly
two years ago, the residents' association of a
low-income housing project called Goodwin
Center hired a likable and enterprising young civil
engineer named John Marshall to address the
problem of under-age prostitutes having sex on
people's windowsills. 

Marshall, who is now 33, met me at the Hull
railway station carrying a CCTV warning sign.
Armed with more than a million dollars in public
financing from the European Union, Marshall
decided to build what he calls the world's first
Ethernet-based, wireless CCTV system. Initially,
Marshall put up 27 cameras around the housing
project. The cameras didn't bother the prostitutes,
who in fact felt safer working under CCTV.
Instead, they scared the johns -- especially after
the police recorded their license numbers, banged
on their doors and threatened to publish their
names in the newspapers. Business plummeted,
and the prostitutes moved indoors or across town
to the traditional red-light district, where the city
decided to tolerate their presence in limited

But Marshall soon realized that he had bigger fish
to fry than displacing prostitutes from one part of
Hull to another. His innovative network of linked
cameras attracted national attention, which led, a
few months ago, to $20 million in grant money
from various levels of government to expand the
surveillance network throughout the city of Hull.
''In a year and a half,'' Marshall says, ''there'll be a
digital connection to every household in the city.
As far as cameras go, I can imagine that, in 10
years' time, the whole city will be covered. That's
the speed that CCTV is growing.'' In the world
that Marshall imagines, every household in Hull will
be linked to a central network that can access
cameras trained inside and outside every building
in the city. ''Imagine a situation where you've got
an elderly relative who lives on the other side of
the city,'' Marshall says. ''You ring her up, there's
no answer on the telephone, you think she
collapsed -- so you go to the Internet and you
look at the camera in the lounge and you see that
she's making a cup of tea and she's taken her
hearing aid out or something.'' 

The person who controls access to this network of
intimate images will be a very powerful person
indeed. And so I was eager to meet the monitors
of the Panopticon for myself. On a side street of
Hull, near the Star and Garter Pub and the city
morgue, the Goodwin Center's monitoring station
is housed inside a ramshackle private security firm
called Sentry Alarms Ltd. The sign over the door
reads THE GUARD HOUSE. The monitoring
station is locked behind a thick, black vault-style
door, but it looks like a college computer center,
with an Alicia Silverstone pinup near the door.
Instead of an impressive video wall, there are only
two small desktop computers, which receive all
the signals from the Goodwin Center network.
And the digital, Web-based images -- unlike
traditional video -- are surprisingly fuzzy and jerky,
like streaming video transmitted over a slow

During my time in the control room, from 9 p.m. to
midnight, I experienced firsthand a phenomenon
that critics of CCTV surveillance have often
described: when you put a group of bored,
unsupervised men in front of live video screens and
allow them to zoom in on whatever happens to
catch their eyes, they tend to spend a fair amount
of time leering at women. ''What catches the eye is
groups of young men and attractive, young
women,'' I was told by Clive Norris, the Hull
criminologist. ''It's what we call a sense of the
obvious.'' There are plenty of stories of video
voyeurism: a control room in the Midlands, for
example, took close-up shots of women with large
breasts and taped them up on the walls. In Hull,
this temptation is magnified by the fact that part of
the operators' job is to keep an eye on prostitutes.
As it got late, though, there weren't enough
prostitutes to keep us entertained, so we kept
ourselves awake by scanning the streets in search
of the purely consensual activities of boyfriends
and girlfriends making out in cars. ''She had her
legs wrapped around his waist a minute ago,'' one
of the operators said appreciatively as we watched
two teenagers go at it. ''You'll be able to do an
article on how reserved the British are, won't
you?'' he joked. Norris also found that operators,
in addition to focusing on attractive young women,
tend to focus on young men, especially those with
dark skin. And those young men know they are
being watched: CCTV is far less popular among
black men than among British men as a whole. In
Hull and elsewhere, rather than eliminating
prejudicial surveillance and racial profiling, CCTV
surveillance has tended to amplify it. 

After returning from the digital city of Hull, I had a
clearer understanding of how, precisely, the
spread of CCTV cameras is transforming British
society and why I think it's important for America
to resist going down the same path. ''I actually
don't think the cameras have had much effect on
crime rates,'' says Jason Ditton, the criminologist,
whose evaluation of the effect of the cameras in
Glasgow found no clear reduction in violent crime.
''We've had a fall in crime in the last 10 years, and
CCTV proponents say it's because of the
cameras. I'd say it's because we had a boom
economy in the last seven years and a fall in
unemployment.'' Ditton notes that the cameras can
sometimes be useful in investigating terrorist
attacks -- like the Brixton nail-bomber case in
1999 -- but there is no evidence that they prevent
terrorism or other serious crime. 

Last year, Britain's violent crime rates actually
increased by 4.3 percent, even though the cameras
continued to proliferate. But CCTV cameras have
a mysterious knack for justifying themselves
regardless of what happens to crime. When crime
goes up the cameras get the credit for detecting it,
and when crime goes down, they get the credit for
preventing it. 

If the creation of a surveillance society in Britain
hasn't prevented terrorist attacks, it has had subtle
but far-reaching social costs. The handful of
privacy advocates in Britain have tried to
enumerate those costs by arguing that the cameras
invade privacy. People behave in self-conscious
ways under the cameras, ostentatiously trying to
demonstrate their innocence or bristling at the
implication of guilt. Inside a monitoring room near
Runnymede, the birthplace of the Magna Carta, I
saw a group of teenagers who noticed that a
camera was pivoting around to follow them; they
made an obscene gesture toward it and looked
back over their shoulders as they tried to escape
its gaze. 

The cameras are also a powerful inducement
toward social conformity for citizens who can't be
sure whether they are being watched. ''I am gay
and I might want to kiss my boyfriend in Victoria
Square at 2 in the morning,'' a supporter of the
cameras in Hull told me. ''I would not kiss my
boyfriend now. I am aware that it has altered the
way I might behave. Something like that might be
regarded as an offense against public decency.
This isn't San Francisco.'' Nevertheless, the man
insisted that the benefits of the cameras
outweighed the costs, because ''thousands of
people feel safer.'' 

There is, in the end, a powerfully American reason
to resist the establishment of a national surveillance
network: the cameras are not consistent with the
values of an open society. They are technologies
of classification and exclusion. They are ways of
putting people in their place, of deciding who gets
in and who stays out, of limiting people's
movement and restricting their opportunities. I
came to appreciate the exclusionary potential of
the surveillance technology in a relatively low-tech
way when I visited a shopping center in Uxbridge,
a suburb of London. The manager of the center
explained that people who are observed to be
misbehaving in the mall can be banned from the
premises. The banning process isn't very
complicated. ''Because this isn't public property,
we have the right to refuse entry, and if there's a
wrongdoer, we give them a note or a letter, or
simply tell them you're banned.'' In America, this
would provoke anyone who was banned to call
Alan Dershowitz and sue for discrimination. But
the British are far less litigious and more willing to
defer to authority. 

Banning people from shopping malls is only the
beginning. A couple of days before I was in
London, Borders Books announced the installation
of a biometric face-recognition surveillance system
in its flagship store on Charing Cross Road.
Borders' scheme meant that that anyone who had
shoplifted in the past was permanently branded as
a shoplifter in the future. In response to howls of
protest from America, Borders dismantled the
system, but it may well be resurrected in a
post-Sept. 11 world. 

Perhaps the reason that Britain has embraced the
new technologies of surveillance, while America, at
least before Sept. 11, had strenuously resisted
them, is that British society is far more accepting of
social classifications than we are. The British
desire to put people in their place is the central
focus of British literature, from Dickens to John
Osborne and Alan Bennett. The work of George
Orwell that casts the most light on Britain's
swooning embrace of CCTV is not ''1984.'' It is
Orwell's earlier book ''The English People.'' 

''Exaggerated class distinctions have been
diminishing,'' Orwell wrote, but ''the great majority
of the people can still be 'placed' in an instant by
their manners, clothes and general appearance''
and above all, their accents. Class distinctions are
less hardened today than they were when I was a
student at Oxford at the height of the Thatcher-era
''Brideshead Revisited'' chic. But it's no surprise
that a society long accustomed to the idea that
people should know their place didn't hesitate to
embrace a technology designed to ensure that
people stay in their assigned places. 

Will America be able to resist the pressure to
follow the British example and wire itself up with
surveillance cameras? Before Sept. 11, I was
confident that we would. Like Germany and
France, which are squeamish about CCTV
because of their experience with 20th-century
totalitarianism, Americans are less willing than the
British to trust the government and defer to
authority. After Sept. 11, however, everything has
changed. A New York Times/CBS news poll at
the end of September found that 8 in 10
Americans believe they will have to give up some
of their personal freedoms to make the country
safe from terrorist attacks. 

Of course there are some liberties that should be
sacrificed in times of national emergency if they
give us greater security. But Britain's experience in
the fight against terrorism suggests that people may
give up liberties without experiencing a
corresponding increase in security. And if we
meekly accede in the construction of vast
feel-good architectures of surveillance that have
far-reaching social costs and few discernible social
benefits, we may find, in calmer times, that they
are impossible to dismantle. 

It's important to be precise about the choice we
are facing. No one is threatening at the moment to
turn America into Orwell's Big Brother. And
Britain hasn't yet been turned into Big Brother,
either. Many of the CCTV monitors and camera
operators and policemen and entrepreneurs who
took the time to meet with me were models of the
British sense of fair play and respect for the rules.
In many ways, the closed-circuit television
cameras have only exaggerated the qualities of the
British national character that Orwell identified in
his less famous book: the acceptance of social
hierarchy combined with the gentleness that leads
people to wait in orderly lines at taxi stands; a
deference to authority combined with an appealing
tolerance of hypocrisy. These English qualities
have their charms, but they are not American

The promise of America is a promise that we can
escape from the Old World, a world where
people know their place. When we say we are
fighting for an open society, we don't mean a
transparent society -- one where neighbors can
peer into each other's windows using the joysticks
on their laptops. We mean a society open to the
possibility that people can redefine and reinvent
themselves every day; a society in which people
can travel from place to place without showing
their papers and being encumbered by their past; a
society that respects privacy and constantly
reshuffles social hierarchy. 

The ideal of America has from the beginning been
an insistence that your opportunities shouldn't be
limited by your background or your database; that
no doors should be permanently closed to anyone
who has the wrong smart card. If the 21st century
proves to be a time when this ideal is abandoned
-- a time of surveillance cameras and creepy
biometric face scanning in Times Square -- then
Osama bin Laden will have inflicted an even more
terrible blow than we now imagine. 

Jeffrey Rosen is an associate professor at
George Washington University Law School
and the legal affairs editor of The New
Republic. He writes frequently on law for The
Times Magazine.

   Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company | Privacy