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Somebody's watching you

STEPHANIE HOO and RAY ZABLOCKI / AP | September 22 2006

You may think you're alone as you sit there on a park bench scratching your nose or adjusting your pantyhose. But increasingly in today's America, someone is watching you.

Surveillance cameras are everywhere. In parking lots, your local mall, office lobbies, city streets.

Authorities say the cameras help catch criminals and stop terrorists. Civil libertarians say they are an invasion of privacy.

Either way, consider this: Personally, do hidden cameras make you feel safer or more on edge?

"It's taking away people's normal lives," says Fruilan Cruz, a janitor at the fortress-like New York Stock Exchange, where his every move is recorded by hidden cameras as he sweeps up each day. There are even cameras in the lampposts, he says -- "Everywhere."

Indeed, New York's financial district is awash with cameras as well as police vans and security barriers, which guard a city still on edge five years after 9/11, when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center.

It's not just New York. Chicago has spent about $5 million on a 2,000-camera system. In Washington D.C., Homeland Security officials plan to spend $9.8 million for cameras and sensors on a rail line near the Capitol.

And yet, many visitors here don't realize they're being monitored.

"What? I didn't know," says tourist Patricia Garrett, when shown the half-dozen cameras mounted on the side of the stock exchange. "That's kind of creepy."

Garrett, from Orlando, Fla., is a shift manager at an Arby's that has a security camera -- only it doesn't work. "We actually just got robbed a few days ago," she says.

Might cameras that do work stop crime? "Yeah," she says sarcastically. "If people ever check on them."

Most of the cameras are set up not by police but by private companies protecting their property. And these private cameras often videotape more than simply a building's entrance or lobby, civil libertarians warn. They may also cast their gaze outward to the public streets and sidewalks, to the park across the way, even into someone's apartment.

"Right now there are no restrictions in place that prevent a private individual and a private entity from filming from its own property what goes on in whatever is within sight," says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "And given the technological advances, you could film for miles."

Further, there is a blurred line between private and police use, since police can request access to privately filmed footage. Police surveillance is subject to more limitations but can still be misused, she says, pointing out that some images from police cameras have already popped up the Internet.

"So how can we be reassured that they will never abuse the public trust on this issue? It has happened, and it seems they've done nothing to ensure accountability."

The New York Police Department didn't respond to requests for comment.

The privacy fears are overblown, says Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"I don't believe the public has an expectation of privacy when they're in public areas," he says. "Certainly not when they're coming into places of public assembly, like theaters or arenas or bus stations," he adds. "I think that's simply something that we accept, and we're not giving up freedom by agreeing to such a measure."

He points out that some crimes are disappearing because of cameras and other police technology. Armed gangs no longer storm into banks, because they know technology will thwart and catch them, he says.

If anything, cameras will become standard in public places, he adds.

"Yes, it's a surveillance society, but it's got benefits for people."

Whatever your own point of view, the cameras are here to stay -- and they're becoming ever more stealthy and high-tech.

McCrie says cameras will eventually be able to track suspicious individuals -- for example, if they set off hidden bomb detectors while going through a subway turnstile -- with images immediately flashing up on a police officer's personal digital assistant.

"So when security or the police respond, they know exactly whom to follow," he says. "That's where this technology is going."

New York already has 1,000 cameras in the subways and 3,100 cameras monitoring city housing projects, and it is in the process of installing 500 more around the city at a cost of $9 million. Thousands more could be added if the city gets $81.5 million in federal grants to create a surveillance "ring of steel" modeled after the tight security measures in London's financial district.

It's a "Big Brother" scenario made real, for better or for worse.


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