the real news from Washington

At approximately 9:00 am (Eastern Standard Time) on Sunday 21 April 2002, the CBS news program Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood included a segment on surveillance cameras. Reported by news correspondent Martha Teichner and produced by Jason Sacca, this 10-minute-long segment focused upon the police video surveillance system in Washington, D.C., and included interviews with D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, Congressional Representative Connie Morella, Bill Brown of the New York Surveillance Camera Players, and Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which has put up a new web site exclusively devoted to surveillance cameras in the District of Columbia.

If one didn't see the TV broadcast but simply read about it on CBS's web site, one might resonably have thought that the focus of the story was primarily New York City, not Washington, D.C.

(CBS) Times Square. The best place in the United States to lose yourself. Pretty anonymous, right? Think again. As many as 200 surveillance cameras are observing every move you make.

That's nothing compared to Washington, D.C., where the chief of police says that he potentially has access to an unlimited number of cameras.

This Sunday Morning, the slippery slope of surveillance.

Americans have grown accustomed to surveillance cameras watching them in convenience stores, at work, and at ATM machines. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, many private businesses, town governments, and police departments are installing surveillance cameras, often in public places, at what privacy advocates say is an alarming rate. They want to know, "Who's watching the watchers?"

CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports on the growing debate between security and privacy.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of the confusion. A patch-work construction, CBS's program on surveillance introduced several, possibly (un)related themes: 1) the use of police cameras to watch political demonstrators (the program opened with shots of and commentary about demonstrators walking beneath surveillance cameras during a large anti-war demonstration held in Washington, D.C., on 20 April 2002); 2) the use of Park Police cameras to watch visitors to the monuments in the nation's capital; 3) the use of police cameras to watch tourists in Times Square; and 4) the use of surveillance cameras in England (there was a brief sub-segment that included shots of cameras in London and a badly recorded voice-over that was no doubt left in because it couldn't be re-recorded without flying back to England). There was also 5) a series of ad hoc references to topics of "current" interest, such as face recognition software, traffic or "red-light" cameras and the use of surveillance cameras to watch passengers on JetBlue airplanes. (We must place the word "current" in quotes because CBS passed on lots of out-of-date information about these subjects: Correspondent Teichner referred to the use of face recognition in Tampa Bay, Florida, without mentioning the fact that Tampa's police stopped using the software back in August 2001 because it was totally unreliable; and she referred to traffic cameras without mentioning the fact that, in the last few months, these devices have either been successfully challenged in court or taken down in several American cities and states, including Denver, San Diego and Hawaii.)

Unfortunately for the (average) viewer, at least two of these themes -- the sub-segment on England and the series of ad hoc references -- should never have been included in the first place. The time spent on these matters, which are clearly of secondary concern, should have been devoted instead to the widespread but under-reported use of cameras by police departments to watch political demonstrations both large and small, both in the nation's capital and elsewhere. (Note well that the DC Independent Media Center carried a great deal of coverage of the 20 April 2002 demonstrations, but did not mention the police's use of high-tech surveillance cameras to watch the participants in them, despite the fact that -- according to the police -- many of these cameras were originally installed to surveill the demonstrators outside of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings that were held in Washington, D.C., in April 2000.) Instead, CBS chose to devote the majority of its attention to the use of police cameras to watch visitors to the national monuments in Washington, D.C., and "tourists" in Times Square.

According to EPIC's Marc Rotenberg, D.C. will be the main field upon which the looming battle over surveillance cameras and privacy rights will be fought. Rotenberg's right, but not necessarily (or solely) for the reason given, i.e., that Washington's monuments -- the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, et al -- literally symbolize the country's commitment to "liberty and justice for all," and so should not be defiled or trivialized by the presence of devices that provide "security for some." People won't stand for it, or so goes this line of reasoning.

But "people" will stand for it: CBS says so and of course CBS has "the facts" to prove it. According to a poll "out today," 77 percent (of those who responded) were in favor of the use of police cameras at the nation's monuments; 81 percent didn't think such cameras were an invasion of the right to privacy; and 72 percent would be willing to give up "some" of their personal liberties for increased "security." Even more damaging to the position(s) taken by Rotenberg, Rep. Morella and Bill Brown (that is to say, everyone other than Police Chief Ramsey) was the "fact" that, despite the use of video surveillance by 80 percent of America's 19,000 police departments, CBS "couldn't find any evidence of serious abuses."

Neither Rotenberg, Morella, nor Brown were given an opportunity to respond to these alledged facts, which are either completely irrelevant or obviously inaccurate. The express intention of the Bill of Rights was to guarantee the protection of certain basic human rights, including the right to privacy, despite the vicissitudes of public opinion, unless or only if those vicissitudes rose to the level at which another amendment to the Constitution was necessary. The Ninth Amendment makes it clear that, even if the Fourth Amendment doesn't use the word "privacy," the right to privacy (among other unspecified rights) is still protected by the Constitution. Serious abuses of video cameras have been reported over and over again in New York's newspapers. In the most recent case, the building superintendant at 597 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was caught using the "security" system he himself installed and maintained, not to prevent crimes, but to commit them, i.e., to watch women's bathrooms for sexual gratification). Such stories have led to the passage of measures against secret videotaping in Florida and other states.

In the absence of this truly relevant information, the viewer of the CBS program must have thought that all the anti-surveillance activists have going for them is: 1) the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which CBS showed Bill Brown reading aloud to what the TV network identified as a police surveillance camera in Times Square (this scene was in fact the segment's conclusion); 2) the scene in which EPIC's photographers were physically ejected from a building by private security guards (in the incongruous voice-over, Correspondent Teichner implored her viewers "You be the judge" of whether or not this horrific footage documents precisely the sort of "abuse" that CBS claimed that it couldn't find among police officers, who sometimes moon-light as security guards); and 3) the scene in which Marc Rotenberg pointed out that Police Chief Ramsey was obviously lying when he (Ramsey) claimed that his cameras can't zoom in and focus on the words in a flyer or newspaper that is being distributed by someone standing on the street, nor can they pull back and read a license plate on a car one mile away, when (as Rotenberg pointed out) a camera with these abilities (and more) can be purchased at any electronics store in America for under $1,000.

Though that was a lot of damaging testimony, it wasn't enough to give the viewer a sense of what's really at stake in the battle over the surveillance of public places by the D.C. police. As a result, the opposition -- even if it was articulated by three (very) different people (Rotenberg, Brown and Morella) -- seemed irrelevant, out-of-step and possibly motivated by ulterior ("political") motives, unlike humble public servant Charles Ramsey. "This isn't the 19th Century," the ultra-modern Chief of Police, possibly confused about the century in which the Bill of Rights was passed, said to CBS; "it's the 21st Century, and we're going to use what's available to us."

And that, of course, is the rub. "What's available" to the D.C. police -- what makes D.C. the field upon which the battle over surveillance is going to take place -- is perhaps the most sophisticated (and the most vulnerable) surveillance system in the world. Unfortunately, CBS didn't tell its viewers about this system or how it works; it simply showed it. And, unless the viewer knew exactly what he or she was looking at when CBS showed Police Chief Ramsey standing in front of a wall of computer screens, what was shown was likely to go right by the average viewer.

The D.C. police aren't using a "traditional" closed-circuit television (CCTV) system, in which the surveillance cameras are physically connected to the video monitors by cables, but an "ultra-modern" open-circuit television (OCTV) system, in which the cameras contain microwave transmitters that use digital wireless networks to send the images they've captured to the monitors. The D.C. police are also "tapping into" or gaining physical access to other, pre-existing CCTV systems and using microwave transmitters to beam the images captured by these systems to the police's own video monitors. To allow the watchers of these monitors to be anywhere they want or need to be, rather than in a specific control-room or some other centralized location, the transmitted images are being received and displayed by Internet servers. In exactly the same way that the average Internet user might employ a Web browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer to click through and look at a series of Web sites, the D.C. police are using special computer software to click through and look at any surveillance camera that's part of the system.

The advantages of such an OCTV system are clear: not only does it allow both centralized and decentralized watching (indeed, the watcher(s) of a particular camera can be anywhere in the world an Internet connection is possible), it also obviates the necessity for protecting and repairing those troublesome video cables, which can easily be damaged by heat, cold, insects, birds, accidents, saboteurs, etc etc. The images captured by such a system aren't limited to the medium of videotape, and can be reproduced and distributed instantaneously in a wide variety of other media (print, fax, e-mail) without an appreciable loss of quality or detail. Furthermore, these digital images can be stored without using hardly any computer space, and can be retrieved, sorted through and grouped in a matter of seconds. Working with all this high-tech gadgetry must sure be flattering to the egos of the rookie officers and demoralized veterans who are assigned to be the video watchers . . . .

But the disadvantages of the OCTV system in Washington, D.C. are very serious indeed, and far outweigh the advantages. In a story published in The New York Times and brought to Bill Brown's attention by none other than Martha Teichner and on the very day that she interviewed Bill for CBS, it was revealed that wireless nanny cams -- which are surveillance cameras that use wireless OCTV systems to surveill nannies while the parents are away -- can easily be "hacked into" by people who purchase a certain, relatively inexpensive electronic device that scans for and locks on to wireless video transmissions. And so, the very same device (the wireless nanny cam) that supposedly gives parents (and only parents) the opportunity to "secretly" watch nannies, and thereby protect their children from predators, can also be used by anyone (a burglar, rapist or voyeur) to pry right into people's homes without their owners knowing or even suspecting.

When asked to respond to the story in The New York Times, Bill ignored the question of hackers and focused on the situation they were exploiting: while at work, parents are using wireless cameras and the Internet to watch the people they have hired to watch their children. What struck Bill was the fact that these parents are getting things backwards, and that what they should be doing is staying at home with their children, and using the Internet to "telecommute" into work. Unfortunately, none of this -- neither nanny cams nor Bill's response to the article in The New York Times about them -- made it into CBS's broadcast.

What Martha Teichner knows, but (also) didn't put into her piece, was the simple fact that the D.C. police's wireless OCTV system -- and the New York Police Department's video vans and helicopters and the many other similar systems in operation -- have the exact same (fatal) vulnerability as that possessed by privately owned wireless nanny cams: they can easily be hacked into by curious-seekers, criminals or terrorists. And these hackers need not be "passive," that is, they need not be satisifed with the views that their unwitting hosts have provided for them. In a fact not mentioned by The New York Times, hackers can also actively re-program the computer that controls the OCTV system and, if they like, feed the system a stream of misleading or fake images, or even create new, "super-secret" views (these might be of the original programmer and/or the people or things he or she originally sought to protect).

And so, the real news is this: in the name of providing "security," the D.C. police and the NYPD have installed systems that are thoroughly insecure, and thus actual dangers to the people they were installed to protect.

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

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