NYC Surveillance Camera Project*
Surveillance Camera Project Overview

New York City: A Surveillance Camera Town

The Making of the Map

Over the last five months, a small but dedicated group of New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) volunteers walked the streets of Manhattan in search of video surveillance cameras. This group sought out every camera, public or private, which records people in public space. Mostly by foot, but occasionally by car, they covered every block in the borough. From the records they made of all camera locations, the volunteers produced a comprehensive map of surveillance cameras in Manhattan.

The map includes cameras that are readily visible from the city streets. This means that the cameras may be located in private or public spaces, but record action in the latter. However, we cannot represent that all visible cameras are continuously functioning.

The private cameras may be inside an alcove and pointed out, above a garage door or affixed to the wall of a private building and pointed down a block. The public cameras may be on traffic or streetlight poles or affixed to a public building. Cameras are labeled as either public or private based upon the assumed ownership of the structure to which they are affixed.

Although the group saw 2,397 cameras in Manhattan, the map they created is far from exhaustive. As slowly as they walked and as carefully as they looked, cameras have escaped their search. A few because the volunteers were busily writing down the location of a camera nearby, but many more because the cameras were hidden from sight. Whether tucked surreptitiously out of the line of vision or small enough to escape detection, we believe many more cameras currently watch our city streets than appear on the map. And numerous others are continually being installed.

Creating a map of Manhattan is just the first stage of the project. The NYCLU plans to expand the map to include all cameras that record public spaces in all five boroughs. Then, the NYCLU will continually update the city-wide map to reflect what we predict to be a growing number of surveillance cameras in the city.

The Philosophy Behind the Project

Video surveillance cameras have arrived on the streets of New York City. But it is up to us to decide if they are here to stay, and if they are, then under what conditions. Commonplace outside private companies, storefronts and apartment buildings, in parks and at intersections, surveillance cameras have been passively accepted as necessary for our personal safety. At this stage in their proliferation, we need to take an active, not passive, role in the decision-making process that allows for the installation of video surveillance cameras. In certain situations, cameras do afford us an important sense of safety: when they watch the entryway of our apartment buildings or the loading dock of our businesses. But there is an equal, if not greater, number of situations in which cameras become not protective, but invasive. Placed in changing rooms and bathrooms, cameras record peoples most private moments on tape, tapes on which footage of women undressing or using the bathroom is often reviewed by men. In these examples, the deleterious nature of video surveillance is obvious. But in other situations the invasive presence of a camera is not as blatant, but it is equally as intrusive.

When cameras are mounted on street corners, the vast majority of the time they monitor people engaged in innocent and lawful activities. However, these innocent activities may be confidential and personally damaging if the tapes fall into the wrong hands. Public spaces often serve as meeting ground for lawyers and clients, reporters and sources and businesspeople and politicians who want to talk privately. Cameras also capriciously watch off-guard moments: a cigarette break or a kiss goodbye, which, at one point or another, most everyone has not wanted captured on video.

Even more critically, cameras prevent law-abiding citizens who hold political or social views not accepted by the majority from expressing themselves freely. Michael Rosano of the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project feels that the installation of cameras along places like the Greenwich Village piers, a cruising strip for gay men, will stop many same sex couples from even holding hands for fear "that the tapes would get into the wrong hands. " Similarly, the threat of cameras targeting certain races of people has been raised. Will African Americans be automatically considered suspicious to the camera, or the person behind the lens? We must address these issues and question the motives behind decisions like that which led to the New York City Police Department’s reported taping of large segments of the Million Youth March in Harlem on Labor Day Weekend, 1998.

Video Surveillance cameras have arrived with effectively no organized discussion or debate on their role in our city. Even less has been accomplished in regards to developing and implementing uniform standards that should apply to use of surveillance equipment. There are a slew of issues to be raised and questions to be answered regarding the presence of cameras in public spaces. Until these are addressed, we cannot expect that everyone who wants to install a camera will carefully weigh the pros and cons of its installation, the location s/he has chosen and the ultimate destination of the video footage. Even after video surveillance is raised as a topic of public debate, informal decisions will be ineffectual without formal guidelines to regulate video surveillance of public space.

With the rapid advance of technology, the importance of these guidelines becomes even greater. Each video camera does not operate in isolation. Vast networks tie tens, even hundreds, of cameras together, allowing footage from many sites to be compiled, watched and stored at a central database. In the private sector, Citibank's video infrastructure sets a new standard in networking. From a central hub in Midtown, workers monitor cameras located at every branch in the city and its suburbs, cameras under which a quarter of a million New Yorkers pass everyday. Publicly, the New York City Department of Transportation brags of its Vehicular Traffic Control System. DOT employs 55 cameras to watch over Manhattan’s major arteries and one Advanced Traffic Management to control all the cameras and traffic signals to avoid congestion in the city. After being trapped in Manhattan gridlock for an afternoon, one begins to question the effectiveness of these methods for traffic control and starts to wonder what other purpose these cameras may serve the government.

Since the inception of vast databases of video footage, software companies have been designing and marketing facial recognition software, a biometrics technique through which a computer can identify people on tape. Visionics, one of the leading companies in the market, boasts that its software, FaceIt, can atomatically locate faces in complex scenes, track and identify who they are totally hands-off, continuously and in real-time. Software and Systems International touts it software, Mandrake, for its ability to identify faces taking into account "head orientation, lighting conditions, skin color, spectacles, make-up and earrings, facial expression, facial hair and aging." And each of these identification software can be used covertly, and legally, without the consent of the individual being tracked.

The use of video surveillance equipment, the formation of networks and the employment of facial recognition software heighten fear on our streets. An innocent person walking in public has no control over his own actions: who may record them and what the monitor may do with the tape. With the current ubiquity of cameras, the actual ends of individual tape becomes a moot point. The fear of being watched has already been instituted. The city grid morphs into a modern panopticon, a circular prison conceived by the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. From his tower at the center of the prison, the watchman can always peer into every cell, although not simultaneously. Because of his ability to do so, the threat of surveillance becomes as great as the surveillance itself. Our modern panopticon is making prisoners of us all, as we are constantly under the gaze of the camera. Whether it is acting alone or as one in a vast network, we cannot tell, we can only safely presume the latter. We can only presume that the watchman, whoever or wherever he may be, is watching us now.

The Status on the Streets

Two thousand three hundred and ninety seven cameras patrol the streets of Manhattan. On average, 200 cameras watch over every community district in the borough. Approximately 2,000 of the cameras are stationary. The stationary cameras are usually either cylindrical or three-dimensional rectangular devices about the length of one’s forearm. Although often made of an off-white plastic, they can also be found in black.

The stationary cameras can be found in doorways and alcoves, above garage doors and affixed to the fronts or corners of buildings, usually between the first and second stories. They can also be found on the rooftops of buildings, pointing down at the street, or on free- standing poles. The other type of stationary camera that we saw less often, either for its size or for the number that are employed, is a 2" cube, also made of off-white plastic. The cube is predominantly used in doorways, looking out into the street.

The balance of the 2,397 are rotational and globe cameras. Rotational cameras look very similar to the stationary cameras. The body of the camera is essentially the same, a three-dimensional rectangle, but the bracket by which it is affixed to a building is distinct. The bracket is larger, holds the camera farther away from the wall of the building and rotates the entire device. In contrast, the globe camera resembles a streetlight. The top half of the sphere is usually made of white plastic and the bottom half, through which the camera sees, is a dark, but translucent, plastic. Inside the sphere, a camera rotates and records out of sight of its subjects. The globe camera is often found on light poles in the streets or in the parks. The full sphere, and a smaller half-sphere version, are also found on corners of buildings and outside of stores, apartment entrances and restaurants.

The cameras have also been categorized by private or public proprietorship. Public cameras are those on federal, state or city buildings, on streetlights or in parks. All other cameras are considered private. Overwhelmingly, the cameras in Manhattan have been installed, and are staffed, by private companies or individuals. Of the 2,397 cameras, approximately 2,100 are private and less than 300 are public. The situation is very different than the one George Orwell predicted in Nineteen Eighty Four. Big Brother, at this point, is doing about 11 percent of the watching. It is more likely that a private company, your employer, your landlord, your coworker or just about anyone who wants to install a camera, is watching you.

This is especially true in Community Boards 1 and 6. In CB 1, the area of Manhattan south of Canal Street and west of Pearl Street, 440 cameras patrol the streets. In CB 6, the area between 14th and 59th streets East of Lexington/Madison, 517 cameras watch us everyday. On the west side, over 70 cameras were reported in a single three block area between West 32nd and West 35th Streets..

The Recommendations

The intent of our map, the website and this narrative is to raise awareness of the prevalence of video surveillance cameras in New York City, explain the threat they pose to our individual freedom, begin a long overdue, much needed dialogue on the topic and recommend ways to curb cameras infringement on our right of anonymity and to move and associate freely.

In order to achieve these primary goals, we must invoke public dialogue outside of the Civil Liberties Union. Media coverage of the map we have created and the issues it raises will bring the topic to a wider audience. We encourage those who see our map and read about the pros and cons of surveillance cameras to bring the topic up at meetings of local civic, religious and professional groups and/or community board meetings.

We are creating localized maps of the cameras in individual community boards in Manhattan that can start or supplement a discussion. These maps are miniature versions of the Manhattan map and include the total number of cameras, whether they are rotating or stationary, and whether they are public or private. Maps are a wonderful tool for presenting statistical information, but they are only part of the initiative. We hope that each person who sees the map will think about it the next time s/he leaves home and walks into the street, and will look around her/him at the cameras s/he has walked unknowingly by every single day. Moreover, New Yorkers need to call or email the NYCLU and inform us where the cameras are so that we can expand and update the maps. Only then will a community discussion on surveillance cameras become a discussion of every individuals civil liberties.

We call upon our government officials to address the prevalence of video surveillance cameras in public spaces. We encourage them to go to their constituents, go to their local communities and call upon individuals to find out how the people feel about the cameras. Community Board leaders, City Councilmen and State Legislators need to hold public hearings to encourage people to speak openly about the surveillance cameras, and show the people that they too believe in a country where we are free to criticize a government for its actions. Our government officials must then open the same topic for discussion with their peers, for it is through the government that surveillance has the potential to expand, and the ability to be curtailed.

The NYCLU supports, at a minimum, city and state legislation that would limit the use of video surveillance cameras in public spaces. Clearly, the cameras are already here. We cannot realistically hope to eliminate them altogether, nor would we probably want to eradicate them from all public areas. But we do need to regulate them. Legislation should limit the number of hours recorded material, which contains no criminal acts, is retained before the tape is either recycled or erased. It should also limit the distribution of, and the access to, recorded material. The legislation should require signage notifying anyone who may be recorded on the videotape that they are under surveillance. Lastly, all video surveillance cameras in public spaces should be registered with an appropriate governmental agency, such as the Public Advocate's Office.

NYCLU Surveillance Camera Project -- 1998

  • Norman Siegel, Executive Director
  • Ibrahim Rubama, Board of Directors
  • Chris Johnson, Coordinator
  • Bradley McCallum, Artist-In-Residence
  • Greg Bezkorovainy
  • Allyson Bowen
  • Mark Ghuneim
  • Caroline Hall
  • Rebecca Kelley
  • Greg Loftis
  • Leigh Ann Mahler
  • Matt McGuinness
  • Kirsten O’Malley
  • Kay Sirianni
  • Arthur Kimball Stanley