The way the camera follows us


Don’t look now but you’re being followed.

Stepping into the post office for some stamps, pumping gas at the corner station, popping into the convenience store, walking down the hallway at school, waiting to catch a bus — in these and a hundred other actions, you’re on camera.

Opinion: The way the camera follows us

The surveillance camera has become as much a part of urban life as wi-fi and gridlock. For some cities, you can go online and find maps that locate every camera. Those maps require almost constant updating.

The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, the way we look to us all.

— Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble”

Surveillance cameras first began showing up years ago in private businesses — banks, stores, gas stations. More recently, the public sector has gotten into the game. St. Paul is installing them along University Avenue, one of many instances in which we’ve followed the lead of our twin city to the west.

In the early days of surveillance, cameras were likely to be hidden, so you often weren’t aware you were being filmed. Later it was determined that the crime-prevention function of cameras could be enhanced by making them visible, the theory being that ne’er-do-wells would think twice if they knew their actions were being monitored.

The thing about a camera, though, is that it doesn’t distinguish between criminals and noncriminals. It records everything and everyone it sees. In “1984,” George Orwell described the effects of being subject to Big Brother’s “telescreen”:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all of the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

Orwell is not the only one to find the prospect of constant monitoring a chilling one. In 1996, New York City witnessed the birth of the Surveillance Camera Players, a group of actors who follow maps locating all the cameras in a given block, stopping to perform a skit in front of each one. Lest anyone think their efforts are lighthearted, the group describes itself as “completely distrustful of all government,” a phrase they took from NYC Police Commissioner Howard Safir: “Only someone completely distrustful of all government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras.”

Protests about the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in modern life are rare. Whereas a few have argued that cameras violate a right to privacy, others reply that cameras do not infringe on privacy as long as their use is confined to places where people can readily be seen by others. And the question of the extent to which the U.S. Constitution enshrines a right to privacy has been much contested by jurists and constitutional scholars.

But for many Americans, legal definitions of privacy are moot. There is considerable evidence that we no longer care whether others see us; indeed, increasingly we go out of our way to be seen.

Teenagers used to keep diaries, which were carefully hidden from prying eyes. Now they join social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook, and they post blogs on the Web in which musings that once might have been written in a diary are broadcast to anyone with an Internet connection.

When was the last time you heard someone described as “camera shy”? Watch the camera pan the crowd at a baseball game. Do you see people hiding their faces?

The only question many people are likely to ask about their appearance on a surveillance camera is, “Does my hair look OK?”