When TV Cameras Bite Back

As a young kid growing up in the 1950s, I had a weird obsession with television cameras. At about age seven, after visiting a TV station, I decided I wanted an RCA studio camera for Christmas.

Rather than dismissing the wish as absurd, my mother went so far as to contact the local station to see if they had, by chance, an old RCA TK-11 studio camera no longer being used. Fat chance!

Short of the real thing, I built my own camera by gluing together parts of stiff cardboard boxes, using paper towel tubes for the turret lenses. Then, I gathered neighborhood kids to stage fake TV shows. In those days, I saw Philo Farnsworth’s invention as pure magic—and I still do.

Then I grew up. With time and wisdom, I learned that powerful technologies are a two-edged sword. While a technology can benefit humankind, it can at the same time be an oppressor.

The video camera is no different—it can be a powerful tool that opens a new window to the world, or it can be an engine for tyranny.


Over the past decade, those of us who live in big cities have seen a remarkable cultural change enabled by the combination of the video camera and computer networks. This change is being sold in the name of public safety—another tool against terrorism. I’m not so sure it’s not a new form of tyranny.

Like it or not, urban dwellers now live in a surveillance state. There was never a vote on the issue. It just happened, with most people not giving it any serious thought.

(click thumbnail)In London, they call it the “ring of steel”—a network of closed circuit video cameras that constantly watches the public activities of private citizens. We are assured by government officials in the United Kingdom that it makes Londoners feel safe.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls this fear-driven video surveillance a “necessity” and dismisses those who question its use.

“In this day and age, if you think that cameras aren’t watching you all the time, you are very naive,” Bloomberg said to reporters after witnessing a demonstration of the ring of steel in London.

At home, the mayor wants to build an $81.5 million version of the ring of steel in lower Manhattan. Not only would cameras be watching everything, but the system could trigger barriers that automatically block streets.

The city is already using video cameras to secretly scan license plates and then compare the images with information in police databases. As to any concerns about a driver’s privacy, Bloomberg said, “You’ve already given that away when you buy a car and register it and put a license plate on the back, which is basically putting your name on the back of the car.”

For any critics of his surveillance plans, Bloomberg gives them the brushoff.

“It’s ridiculous, people who object to using technology,” the mayor said to reporters.

Some New York City taxi drivers thought about it and rebelled. A group of about 9,000 cabbies have already staged two daylong mini-strikes over the city-mandated installation in their cabs of video displays with a GPS component.

The drivers complain that the GPS systems allow the city to track their movements. Passengers, including this one, complain they are forced to view video screens that bombard the backseat of the cab with advertising and trash TV.

Though the screens can be turned off manually by passengers, it’s uncanny how often they come back on after the cab hits a bump in the road. A design “feature” no one would ever admit.

In Baltimore, the city government—at its discretion—can now require new housing developments to install surveillance cameras connected to a “watch room” at the police department. The police can remotely zoom, rotate, and record images from the cameras at will. The cameras, then-Mayor S. Fred Simmons noted, are “another set of eyes.”


It’s not just the government who’s watching us. In November, AT&T introduced a nationwide program that gives owners of small- and medium-size businesses some of the same tools that big security companies offer for monitoring employees, customers, and operations from remote locations.

Under AT&T’s Remote Monitor program, a business owner can install adjustable video cameras, door sensors, and other monitoring devices at up to five different company locations across the country. Using a personal computer connected to the Internet, the owner can view and record any of the images in real time.

“It is Big Brother, but in this day and age, you need these type of tools” for theft protection, weeding out false accident claims, and other risks, Beaux Roby, owner of a chain of five Mama’s Café restaurants and two banquet halls in Texas, told The New York Times.

Back in New York City, in addition to those owned and operated by the government, there are thousands of private security cameras aimed on city residents are all times. A New York Post reporter was recently captured by at least 54 outdoor surveillance cameras in eight blocks between 42nd and 49th Streets in Times Square, a news report said.

Four of the cameras were operated by EarthCam.com, a Web site that streams live camera feeds over the Internet for anyone to see.

“Hidden cameras enhance people’s safety,” argued Brian Cury, founder of EarthCam. “It’s a way to share information and make people’s lives better.”

Just as I’m dubious whenever I’m told the government is trying to help me, I’m equally skeptical whenever I’m told a technology—any technology—is going to make my life better.

The pervasive use of networked video surveillance technology is a massive ecological change, one that is having a subtle, but far reaching ripple throughout the cultural environment in which we live.

Just as the original invention of broadcast television gave a new colorization to every aspect of life—in the home, at work, at school, in political campaigns, wherever—the consequences of accepting a technological shift like video surveillance is massive and unpredictable.


Though Bloomberg doesn’t want us to think about it, it’s important that we do. And though he tells us that we, as citizens, have no say in the matter, we do.

We are not helpless to respond that an American ring of steel is an unacceptable intrusion into our personal privacy. A technology, any technology, is dangerous only to the extent that we amputate our responsibilities for its control. In the case of video surveillance, it appears we have done just that.

The late technology critic Neil Postman used to pose this question: “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”

In this case, many would quickly say the problem is terrorism. But is it really? Who said so? What are their motives of those who say so? Should we just trust Bloomberg’s blunt statements without scrutiny?

Is our perceived fear of the unknown worth giving up our last ounce of personal privacy to operatives of the state? Do we trust the people watching us? What are their motives?

In a democracy, the adoption of highly intrusive technology should be the decision of the people and implemented only after careful consideration. Too much is at stake.

One of my favorite wise men, Henry David Thoreau, addressed the issue with a famous quote: “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

Sadly, a video camera is just a tool. There’s a very thin line between a magical fantasy and a ring of steel.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.