All along the Camera-Tower

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called for a world-wide action day against video surveillance of public places to take place this Friday. The monitoring of citizens by surveillance cameras installed on buildings, in the streets and at work-stations is constantly increasing. People are constantly being surveilled by cameras installed In places like Great Britain, "1984" scenarios are becoming reality as a result of surveillance by businesses and governmental authorities. The American civil rights organization EFF will be posting the global actions of 7 September 2001 on the Internet to bring attention to the threat video surveillance poses to the rights of social outsiders.

The invisible third set of eyes is always nearby. The guy sticking chewing gum on the bank's nice paneling; the lover who offers a kiss in the bank's parking lot; the person picking their nose while waiting for a streetcar that is late once again -- today everyone must take into account the fact that someone might be filming them and, at best, finding what they're doing to be amusing. Others are not so lucky, and come to the attention of curious police officials and private security firms, who can determine the identities of people by comparing their faces against images stored in databases. As a matter of fact, every harmless gesture and movement in every neighborhood can be continuously surveilled, thanks to very sophisticated lenses that are programmed to recognize "strange behavior" patterns.

To which bar does Person X go? Which newspapers does he buy? With whom does he prefer to spend his time? Nothing is hidden. In many small-town British neighborhoods, the police make constant use of surveillance cameras. In the United Kingdom, at the vanguard of this kind of development, the police have installed more than 300,000 surveillance cameras. There are more than 100 million such cameras in operation all over the world, many of them operating in legal "grey areas."

The first video cameras were originally installed in the 1970s in banks and major street intersections. In the 1980s, public surveillance was widened to include subways, public buildings, parks and stores. And then, in the 1990s, surveillance cameras were also installed in sport stadiums, on highways and along city streets.

Infringements upon the right to deny permission for taking these kinds of photographs are often perpetrated by police authorities and private businesses. The only photographs that are harmless in this regard are those in which specific people cannot be recognized. The right of anonymity is also threatened by these surveillance cameras, especially when a person can be identified by his or her face, the way he or she walks and other personal features. True, no identification usually takes place. Nevertheless, a system that matches photographs with faces in databanks by using a special recognition program is already being used. Anyone wearing ostentatious clothes will no doubt attract the attention of an official who has become bored with watching everyday routines. Others will just as unfairly be deemed innocent passers-by by the police.

When one realizes that video surveillance often goes undetected and that photographs derived from it are widely used, then one gets a sense of the seriousness of the violation in data protection rights. People are not being informed by adequate signs that they are entering locations that are being monitored by video cameras. It is the right of the establishment to use surveillance systems on its premises. But in public places such as train stations and shopping malls, the boundary between private and public areas isn't clear. One would think that in a place that is publically accessible, one has the right to expect that one is free, that is to say, not being watched. The reality of the situation is different.

In addition, though they are taken for safety interests that may or may not be legal, these surveillance-derived photographs may be put to several illegal commercial purposes, including use as advertizing, maintenance, and entertainment. Those who think themselves clever because they can watch a monitor upon which appear the images of other human beings who don't know that they are being filmed do not realize that they, too, can be watched and at that very moment. From the state's side of the argument one hears that even the best crime-prevention methods are partial. Potential law breakers often simply leave the small areas that are watched.

Among the organizations involved in the effort to stop these dire developments are the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) and the EFF. They have called for an International Day of Action that would inform and sensitize citizens to the threat that surveillance cameras pose to the personal rights. On Friday, in answer to a call put out by the EFF [sic], both individuals and organized groups will be participating in autonomous and decentralized creative actions in local places. In order to make good use of the communication lines of the Internet, these groups will when possible stage their actions directly in front of webcams installed in public places by private companies. In this way, business-as-usual for these companies will be somewhat disrupted. In addition, those who are interested in the subject will be able to view the messages, which are to take the form of sketches and short info-plays, performed live. German activists in cities such as Berlin and Bielefeld will at the same time make reports on local surveillance practices.

In accordance with the EFF's call, the participating organizations and individuals should interlace themselves together and as much as possible put up pictures taken from or, at the very least, make links to the webcams that will be used.

One can find a list of participating organizations here. To become involved, send an e-mail to

[Written by Hubert Erb and published on 6 September 2001 by Heise, which also published a shortened version of this text elsewhere. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.]

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