The city where the cameras never sleep… New York, New York

The Gothamist blog has a brief report on the massive upgrading and expansion of the video surveillance system in the New York public transit system. Like Chicago, which I’ve mentioned several times here, the cameras in New York are really just collection devices to feed an evolving suite of video analytic software, that can track suspects or vehicles in real-time or search through old footage to find multiple occurences of particular distinctive objects or people.

The other notable thing is that the new camera system is just completely overlaying the old – in other words there is no attempt to connect the older cameras which are not compatible and have far poorer image quality. As cameras and software gets cheaper, this option looks like being the one many urban authorities will pursue, so cities like London, which pioneered widespread video surveillance, but which, with their disconnected mosaic of incompatible systems, have started to look increasingly ineffective and out-of-date, could deal with this not by expensive and unreliable fixes but simply by sticking in an entirely new integrated algorithmic system on top of or alongside the old ones. Technological fallibility and incompatibility can no longer be relied on as protections for the privacy rights of citizens in public spaces.

New York City expanding surveillance infrastructure

The New York Times reports that $24M US has been assigned from the Department of Homeland Security to expand the city’s CCTV camera system from downtown to midtown Manhattan (the area between 30th and 60th Streets). This of course is justified by Mayor Bloomberg on the grounds of security, with a large number of iconic buildings in the midtown area. However, it bears repeating that firstly, the 9/11 attacks did not come from the streets, and secondly, London already had a comprehensive CCTV system at the time of the 7/7 attacks and whilst they provided lots of pictures for the news media afterwards, they did not in any way prevent the attacks, and it is difficult to see how such a system could prevent any determined attacker. It may make people feel safer, at least temporarily, however even at that symbolic level, there’s likely to be as many people who feel uneasy about the idea of constant monitoring or the loss of privacy (although from my experience of the UK, the actual monitoring is far from constant or comprehensive, and most people also get used to that too). But, whatever the people of New York do feel – and there will many different reactions – they shouldn’t get the impression that they are getting actual ‘security’ (whatever that is) here. This isn’t a message many people like to hear, it seems, least of all those in government…

Another US court says police GPS tracking does need a warrant

The complex landscape of the US judicial system has thrown up a ruling on the police use of GPS tracking devices completely at odds with the recent ruling handed down by the appeals court in Wisconsin. The New York appeals court ruled 4-3 that police GPS tracking should require a warrant. Judge Lipmann’s words on the case, quoted by the New York Times,  are particularly interesting as it appears that he wa taking a long view of potential harm in making his decision. He said:

“One need only consider what the police may learn, practically effortlessly, from planting a single device. The whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres, can be charted and recorded over lengthy periods possibly limited only by the need to change the transmitting unit’s batteries. Disclosed in the data retrieved from the transmitting unit, nearly instantaneously with the press of a button on the highly portable receiving unit, will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. What the technology yields and records with breathtaking quality and quantity, is a highly detailed profile, not simply of where we go, but by easy inference, of our associations — political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few — and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits. When multiple GPS devices are utilized, even more precisely resolved inferences about our activities are possible. And, with GPS becoming an increasingly routine feature in cars and cell phones, it will be possible to tell from the technology with ever increasing precision who we are and are not with, when we are and are not with them, and what we do and do not carry on our persons — to mention just a few of the highly feasible empirical configurations.”

This long term thinking has to be applauded. Sometimes imagination is necessary in the law, and particularly when the issue is one of socio-technical changes. The technological determinism of ‘if it exists, then it must be used’ is a way of thinking that has to be challenged. The question now for the USA is if either of these case or others will find their way to the federal courts. Until then, US citizens and police do not really know where they stand and the constitutional questions remain open.

CCTV watches (and catches) the watchman

surveillance can be a weapon of the weak and perhaps right wrongs committed by representatives of the state…

Sometimes surveillance ends up rebounding on those who are usually on the other side of the camera. Videos from citizens can hold violent officers to account, as in the Rodney King incident. But occasionally, CCTV cameras themselves will catch a violent cop out, as is alleged to have happened in New York in the case of Officer David London’s arrest of Robert Morgenthau, a Iraq-war veteran suffering from PTSD. According to the New York Times, video footage from a CCTV system in the building where the arrest occurred shows Officer London repeatedly beating and kicking Mr Morgenthau.

Ironically, London’s lawyer claims that “oftentimes the videotape is the beginning of the story, not the end.” This isn’t usually the attitude that the police have to CCTV footage of a crime!

Now of course, this kind of thing is also sightly uncomfortable for anti-CCTV activists too. In some ways, it shows CCTV failing of course (it didn’t deter Officer London from assaulting Mr Morgenthau), but it also shows that surveillance, and not particularly countersurveillance or sousveillance just surveillance, can be a weapon of the weak and perhaps right wrongs committed by representatives of the state. We shouldn’t forget that surveillance, whether we object to it generally or in particular cases, is not always about repression; it often has caring intent and can result in the right thing being done.

Utopian urbanism

…it is the adventurous, progressive, social democratic spirit of the New Deal and the World’s Fair that it is most worth revisiting now…

Naxos´ rerelease of The City
Naxos' rerelease of The City

A post which has little to do with surveillance and security today, but much more to do with another of my interests, in urban futures…

The predominantly classical music company, Naxos, has issued a new version of the classic 1939 documentary, The City, which was released to coincide with the New York World´s Fair. The film is a superb piece of work in many areas – a great script by the legendary urbanist, Lewis Mumford, based on his book, The Culture of Cities, luscious cinematography by Ralph Steiner and and Willard van Dyke and, the reason why Naxos is involved, a brilliant score by Aaron Copeland, which has been re-recorded for this release. It is already available for free download from the Internet Archive (a treasure house of historical material), but of course you won´t get the specially rerecorded score or the extra documentaries that accompany the anyway relatively inexpensive re-release.

A past vision of an urban utopia...
A past vision of an urban utopia...

Despite its serious message, the film ultimately shares the optimistic atmosphere of the World’s Fair – see, for example, Andrew F. Wood’s lovely site full of those influential images of progress that so shaped the rest of Twentieth Century’s idea of what the future would look like and then later, should have looked like. Today, it has acquired a new relevance, produced as it was out of that amazing surge of energy in US society resulting from Roosevelt’s solution to the Great Depression, the New Deal. Mumford´s admonition that “the age of rebuilding is here. We must remold our old cities and build new communities, better suited to our needs” (see this article about the movie) has never been more pertinent. As of 2007, we entered an age when the majority of the world’s population is living in cities that are already divided by extremes of wealth and poverty (especially here in Brazil), and a global recession is developing, which should cause humanity to rethink its priorities.

The 1930s saw the best and worst of the drive to utopianism. Some of those paths resulted in the holocaust and the gulags, some led to the unsustainable consumer capitalism we are still trying to revive, but it is the adventurous, progressive, social democratic spirit of the New Deal and the World’s Fair that it is most worth revisiting now.

The Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba
The Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba

Here in Brazil, another nation, like the USA, which struggled throughout the Twentieth Century to fashion itself into a democratic utopia, we can also see this spirit embodied in the gorgeous curves of Oscar Niemeyer‘s fluid Brazilian modernism. Lewis Mumford may be long gone, but Niemeyer is still with us at 101 years old, and still working with the same commitment.

It is a sobering thought that it will not be long before there is no-one left from that generation of urbanists, the generation that was committed to invention, beauty and social progress. Here’s to them…

(thanks to Janet Forbes of York University, Toronto, whose post to a mailing list inspired this reverie)