Mugging for the Cameras

Tune in to International Surveillance Camera Awareness Day.

Cops in the U.S. have a new gadget to play with: surveillance cameras souped-up with "face recognition" technology. They hope expensive new software called "Face-It" will help them nab criminals -- or, more precisely, anyone resembling an archived mug shot -- as they walk busy commercial streets. In July, Face-It went live in Tampa, Florida. Several other American cities have announced they'll consider doing the same.

Face-It is only the latest addition to the growing network of surveillance cameras patrolling the United States. As newer and better technologies hit the market -- and America's public spaces -- there's good reason for worry.

If there is a silver lining in such trends, it's in the enthusiastic actions of a small but international collection of activists who are creatively striking back at Big Brother. These upstarts aren't drafting well-written letters to city councils or local newspapers. Instead, they're purposefully giving surveillance cameras something to gawk at. For example, a New York-based group calling itself The Surveillance Camera Players has reduced psychologist Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism to 15 unambiguous poster panels that were then "performed" for a camera lurking in the New York subway system.

The Surveillance Camera Players of New York have performed other shows in a number of well-known Manhattan locales and recently, in several spots in England. This Friday, September 7, they're a key part of an international effort called International Surveillance Camera Awareness Day. They'll join more than a dozen other groups in separate performances in front of Web cams and closed-circuit cameras in New York, Arizona, Minnesota, Germany, France, England, Colombia, and elsewhere.

"Anytime anybody laughs at what we do, I know they're understanding it," says Bill Brown, founder of the group and mastermind behind the Awareness Day celebration. His unit will perform, among others, a CNN parody called Headline News on three different cameras in Times Square, which Brown says is "thick with surveillance cameras." To catch the show live, visit this Web-cam site at 1 p.m. eastern time.

Active since December 1996, Brown's group was the first of its kind in the United States. That's when members performed seven of nine scenes of an adaptation of Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry's absurdist comedy whose original cast of characters featured the Bear, the Debraining Machine, and the Entire Polish Army. During that first performance, the New York Police Department intervened, cutting the play short. The policemen "just did not care that Scene Eight was the one in which the Bear...fights with and is killed by Ubu's Man," wryly notes the Surveillance Camera's Web site.

Those who tune their browsers to www.tempe.gov/millcam/default.asp on Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern will catch the Arizona Surveillance Camera Players, a group inspired by the New York cell. Led by Chuck Banaszewski, they'll broadcast from a city-owned Web cam that's intended to attract tourists to the sunny Phoenix suburb. The camera watches over a tidy outdoor mall on Mill Avenue, just yards from Arizona State University, where Banaszewski is a Ph.D. candidate in youth theater. The group's play, "Don't Worry -- You'll Still be Allowed to Shop!" criticizes not only the hidden camera, but also various order-maintenance ordinances -- no camping and no cruising, for example -- that restrict behavior in the area.

While there are only a few active groups of such surveillance-camera performers in the United States, there are dozens in Europe and in England, which leads the world in closed-circuit television policing. On British television, comedian Mark Thomas is sponsoring a competition for the most inventive closed-circuit television performance. In order to enter, competitors have to requisition a copy of their masterpiece from the private company or the government agency that operates the camera in question. Under the United Kingdom's Data Protection Act -- passed in 1984 of all years -- anyone using a surveillance camera has to pony up a copy of your recorded image if you ask for it.

In the (so far) silent world of surveillance camera art, humor and a healthy appreciation for the ironic are a common resource. That fact makes it all the easier to appreciate these artists' message: A relentlessly watched society is a damaged society. To Brown, the potential for harm is twofold. First, it gives the police an overwhelming amount of information to abuse at will. Second, and more generally, it contributes to a gradual erosion of privacy that's profoundly threatening to individual autonomy.

"We're putting in place an infrastructure whose power of social control exceeds anything ever contemplated by the worst totalitarian regimes in history," claims Brown. He sees the loss of privacy through surveillance as laying the framework for repressive government: "If you teach people to behave in a certain way, you make it easier for them to follow a fascist leader."

Banaszewski, of the Tempe group, is most frustrated by the cameras that are placed surreptitiously. "I have no problem with cameras in…privately owned businesses," he explains. "But the cameras in public are often there covertly. Our focus is awareness, to let people know that the cameras are there. And that they're not there to protect them. They're there to watch them."

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