[Reader-list] A Cautionary Tale for a New Age of Surveillance

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Sat Oct 6 23:05:38 IST 2001

The New York Times  |  Magazine
October 7, 2001


A Cautionary Tale for a New Age of Surveillance

PHOTO: Stephen Gill for The New York Times
Caption: Stolen Kiss
Surveillance cameras like this one in London capture criminals and 
noncriminals alike.

A week after the attacks of Sept. 11, as the value of most American 
stocks plummeted, a few companies, with products particularly well 
suited for a new and anxious age, soared in value. One of the fastest 
growing stocks was Visionics, whose price more than tripled. The New 
Jersey company is an industry leader in the fledgling science of 
biometrics, a method of identifying people by scanning and 
quantifying their unique physical characteristics -- their facial 
structures, for example, or their retinal patterns. Visionics 
manufactures a face-recognition technology called FaceIt, which 
creates identification codes for individuals based on 80 unique 
aspects of their facial structures, like the width of the nose and 
the location of the temples. FaceIt can instantly compare an image of 
any individual's face with a database of the faces of suspected 
terrorists, or anyone else.

Visionics was quick to understand that the terrorist attacks 
represented not only a tragedy but also a business opportunity. On 
the afternoon of Sept. 11, the company sent out an e-mail message to 
reporters, announcing that its founder and C.E.O., Joseph Atick, 
''has been speaking worldwide about the need for biometric systems to 
catch known terrorists and wanted criminals.'' On Sept. 20, Atick 
testified before a special government committee appointed by the 
secretary of transportation, Norman Mineta. Atick's message -- that 
security in airports and embassies could be improved using 
face-recognition technology as part of a comprehensive national 
surveillance plan that he called Operation Noble Shield -- was 
greeted enthusiastically by members of the committee, which seemed 
ready to endorse his recommendations. ''In the war against terrorism, 
especially when it comes to the homeland defense,'' Atick told me, 
describing his testimony, ''the cornerstone of this is going to be 
our ability to identify the enemy before he or she enters into areas 
where public safety could be at risk.'

Atick proposes to wire up Reagan National Airport in Washington and 
other vulnerable airports throughout the country with more than 300 
cameras each. Cameras would scan the faces of passengers standing in 
line, and biometric technology would be used to analyze their faces 
and make sure they are not on an international terrorist ''watch 
list.'' More cameras unobtrusively installed throughout the airport 
could identify passengers as they walk through metal detectors and 
public areas. And a final scan could ensure that no suspected 
terrorist boards a plane. ''We have created a biometric network 
platform that turns every camera into a Web browser submitting images 
to a database in Washington, querying for matches,'' Atick said. ''If 
a match occurs, it will set off an alarm in Washington, and someone 
will make a decision to wire the image to marshals at the airport.''

Of course, protecting airports is only one aspect of homeland 
security: a terrorist could be lurking on any corner in America. In 
the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Howard Safir, the former New York 
police commissioner, recommended the installation of 100 biometric 
surveillance cameras in Times Square to scan the faces of pedestrians 
and compare them with a database of suspected terrorists. Atick told 
me that since the attacks he has been approached by local and federal 
authorities from across the country about the possibility of 
installing biometric surveillance cameras in stadiums and subway 
systems and near national monuments. ''The Office of Homeland 
Security might be the overall umbrella that will coordinate with 
local police forces'' to install cameras linked to a biometric 
network throughout American cities, Atick told me. ''How can we be 
alerted when someone is entering the subway? How can we be sure when 
someone is entering Madison Square Garden? How can we protect 
monuments? We need to create an invisible fence, an invisible 

Before Sept. 11, the idea that Americans would voluntarily agree to 
live their lives under the gaze of a network of biometric 
surveillance cameras, peering at them in government buildings, 
shopping malls, subways and stadiums, would have seemed unthinkable, 
a dystopian fantasy of a society that had surrendered privacy and 
anonymity. But in fact, over the past decade, this precise state of 
affairs has materialized, not in the United States but in the United 
Kingdom. At the beginning of September, as it happened, I was in 
Britain, observing what now looks like a glimpse of the American 

I had gone to Britain to answer a question that seems far more 
pertinent today than it did early last month: why would a free and 
flourishing Western democracy wire itself up with so many 
closed-circuit television cameras that it resembles the set of ''The 
Real World'' or ''The Truman Show''? The answer, I discovered, was 
fear of terrorism. In 1993 and 1994, two terrorist bombs planted by 
the I.R.A. exploded in London's financial district, a historic and 
densely packed square mile known as the City of London. In response 
to widespread public anxiety about terrorism, the government decided 
to install a ''ring of steel'' -- a network of closed-circuit 
television cameras mounted on the eight official entry gates that 
control access to the City.

Anxiety about terrorism didn't go away, and the cameras in Britain 
continued to multiply. In 1994, a 2-year-old boy named Jamie Bulger 
was kidnapped and murdered by two 10-year-old schoolboys, and 
surveillance cameras captured a grainy shot of the killers leading 
their victim out of a shopping center. Bulger's assailants couldn't, 
in fact, be identified on camera -- they were caught because they 
talked to their friends -- but the video footage, replayed over and 
over again on television, shook the country to its core. Riding a 
wave of enthusiasm for closed-circuit television, or CCTV, created by 
the attacks, John Major's Conservative government decided to devote 
more than three-quarters of its crime-prevention budget to encourage 
local authorities to install CCTV. The promise of cameras as a magic 
bullet against crime and terrorism inspired one of Major's most 
successful campaign slogans: ''If you've got nothing to hide, you've 
got nothing to fear.''

Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian intrusion, the cameras in 
Britain proved to be extremely popular. They were hailed as the 
people's technology, a friendly eye in the sky, not Big Brother at 
all but a kindly and watchful uncle or aunt. Local governments 
couldn't get enough of them; each hamlet and fen in the British 
countryside wanted its own CCTV surveillance system, even when the 
most serious threat to public safety was coming from mad cows. In 
1994, 79 city centers had surveillance networks; by 1998, 440 city 
centers were wired. By the late 1990's, as part of its Clintonian, 
center-left campaign to be tough on crime, Tony Blair's New Labor 
government decided to support the cameras with a vengeance. There are 
now so many cameras attached to so many different surveillance 
systems in the U.K. that people have stopped counting. According to 
one estimate, there are 2.5 million surveillance cameras in Britain, 
and in fact there may be far more.

As I filed through customs at Heathrow Airport, there were cameras 
concealed in domes in the ceiling. There were cameras pointing at the 
ticket counters, at the escalators and at the tracks as I waited for 
the Heathrow express to Paddington Station. When I got out at 
Paddington, there were cameras on the platform and cameras on the 
pillars in the main terminal. Cameras followed me as I walked from 
the main station to the underground, and there were cameras at each 
of the stations on the way to King's Cross. Outside King's Cross, 
there were cameras trained on the bus stand and the taxi stand and 
the sidewalk, and still more cameras in the station. There were 
cameras on the backs of buses to record people who crossed into the 
wrong traffic lane.

Throughout Britain today, there are speed cameras and red-light 
cameras, cameras in lobbies and elevators, in hotels and restaurants, 
in nursery schools and high schools. There are even cameras in 
hospitals. (After a raft of ''baby thefts'' in the early 1990's, the 
government gave hospitals money to install cameras in waiting rooms, 
maternity wards and operating rooms.) And everywhere there are 
warning signs, announcing the presence of cameras with a jumble of 
different icons, slogans and exhortations, from the bland ''CCTV in 
operation'' to the peppy ''CCTV: Watching for You!'' By one estimate, 
the average Briton is now photographed by 300 separate cameras in a 
single day.

Britain's experience under the watchful eye of the CCTV cameras is a 
vision of what Americans can expect if we choose to go down the same 
road in our efforts to achieve ''homeland security.'' Although the 
cameras in Britain were initially justified as a way of combating 
terrorism, they soon came to serve a very different function. The 
cameras are designed not to produce arrests but to make people feel 
that they are being watched at all times. Instead of keeping 
terrorists off planes, biometric surveillance is being used to keep 
punks out of shopping malls. The people behind the live video screens 
are zooming in on unconventional behavior in public that in fact has 
nothing to do with terrorism. And rather than thwarting serious 
crime, the cameras are being used to enforce social conformity in 
ways that Americans may prefer to avoid.

The dream of a biometric surveillance system that can identify 
people's faces in public places and separate the innocent from the 
guilty is not new. Clive Norris, a criminologist at the University of 
Hull, is Britain's leading authority on the social effects of CCTV. 
In his definitive study, ''The Maximum Surveillance Society: the Rise 
of CCTV,'' Norris notes that in the 19th century, police forces in 
England and France began to focus on how to distinguish the casual 
offender from the ''habitual criminal'' who might evade detection by 
moving from town to town. In the 1870's, Alphonse Bertillon, a 
records clerk at the prefecture of police in Paris, used his 
knowledge of statistics and anthropomorphic measurements to create a 
system for comparing the thousands of photographs of arrested 
suspects in Parisian police stations. He took a series of 
measurements -- of skull size, for example, and the distance between 
the ear and chin -- and created a unique code for every suspect whom 
the police had photographed. Photographs were then grouped according 
to the codes, and a new suspect could be compared only with the 
photos that had similar measurements, instead of with the entire 
portfolio. Though Bertillon's system was often difficult for 
unskilled clerks to administer, a procedure that had taken hours or 
days was now reduced to a few minutes.

It wasn't until the 1980's, with the development of computerized 
biometric and other face-recognition systems, that Bertillon's dream 
became feasible on a broad scale. In the course of studying how 
biometric scanning could be used to authenticate the identities of 
people who sought admission to secure buildings, innovators like 
Joseph Atick realized that the same technology could be used to pick 
suspects or license plates out of a crowd. It's the license-plate 
technology that the London police have found most attractive, because 
it tends to be more reliable. (A test of the best face-recognition 
systems last year by the U.S. Department of Defense found that they 
failed to identify matches a third of the time.)

Soon after arriving in London, I visited the CCTV monitoring room in 
the City of London police station, where the British war against 
terrorism began. I was met by the press officer, Tim Parsons, and led 
up to the control station, a modest-size installation that looks like 
an air-traffic-control room, with uniformed officers manning two rows 
of monitors. Although installed to catch terrorists, the cameras in 
the City of London spend most of their time following car thieves and 
traffic offenders. ''The technology here is geared up to terrorism,'' 
Parsons told me. ''The fact that we're getting ordinary people -- 
burglars stealing cars -- as a result of it is sort of a bonus.''

Have you caught any terrorists? I asked. ''No, not using this 
technology, no,'' he replied.

As we watched the monitors, rows of slow-moving cars filed through 
the gates into the City, and cameras recorded their license-plate 
numbers and the faces of their drivers. After several minutes, one 
monitor set off a soft, pinging alarm. We had a match! But no, it was 
a false alarm. The license plate that set off the system was 8620bmc, 
but the stolen car recorded in the database was 8670amc. After a few 
more mismatches, the machine finally found an offender, though not a 
serious one. A red van had gone through a speed camera, and the local 
authority that issued the ticket couldn't identify the driver. An 
alert went out on the central police national computer, and it set 
off the alarm when the van entered the City. ''We're not going to do 
anything about it because it's not a desperately important call,'' 
said the sergeant.

Because the cameras on the ring of steel take clear pictures of each 
driver's face, I asked whether the City used the biometric facial 
recognition technology that American airports are now being urged to 
adopt. ''We're experimenting with it to see if we could pick faces 
out of the crowd, but the technology is not sufficiently good 
enough,'' Parsons said. ''The system that I saw demonstrated two or 
three years ago, a lot of the time it couldn't differentiate between 
a man and a woman.'' (In a recent documentary about CCTV, Monty 
Python's John Cleese foiled a Visionics face-recognition system that 
had been set up in the London borough of Newham by wearing earrings 
and a beard.) Nevertheless, Parsons insisted that the technology will 
become more accurate. ''It's just a matter of time. Then we can use 
it to detect the presence of criminals on foot in the city,'' he said.

In the future, as face-recognition technology becomes more accurate, 
it will become even more intrusive, because of pressures to expand 
the biometric database. I mentioned to Joseph Atick of Visionics that 
the City of London was thinking about using his technology to 
establish a database that would include not only terrorists but also 
all British citizens whose faces were registered with the national 
driver's license bureau. If that occurs, every citizen who walks the 
streets of the City could be instantly identified by the police and 
evaluated in light of his past misdeeds, no matter how trivial. With 
the impatience of a rationalist, Atick dismissed the possibility. 
''Technically, they won't be able to do it without coming back to 
me,'' he said. ''They will have to justify it to me.'' Atick struck 
me as a refined and thoughtful man (he is the former director of the 
computational neuroscience laboratory at Rockefeller University), but 
it seems odd to put the liberties of a democracy in the hands of one 
unelected scientist.

Atick says that his technology is an enlightened alternative to 
racial and ethnic profiling, and if the faces in the biometric 
database were, in fact, restricted to known terrorists, he would be 
on to something. Instead of stopping all passengers who appear to be 
Middle Eastern and victimizing thousands of innocent people, the 
system would focus with laserlike precision on a tiny handful of the 
guilty. (This assumes that the terrorists aren't cunning enough to 
disguise themselves.) But when I asked whether any of the existing 
biometric databases in England or America are limited to suspected 
terrorists, Atick confessed that they aren't. There is a simple 
reason for this: few terrorists are suspected in advance of their 
crimes. For this reason, cities in England and elsewhere have tried 
to justify their investment in face-recognition systems by filling 
their databases with those troublemakers whom the authorities can 
easily identify: local criminals. When FaceIt technology was used to 
scan the faces of the thousands of fans entering the Super Bowl in 
Tampa last January, the matches produced by the database weren't 
terrorists. They were low-level ticket scalpers and pickpockets.

Biometrics is a feel-good technology that is being marketed based on 
a false promise -- that the database will be limited to suspected 
terrorists. But the FaceIt technology, as it's now being used in 
England, isn't really intended to catch terrorists at all. It's 
intended to scare local hoodlums into thinking they might be setting 
off alarms even when the cameras are turned off. I came to understand 
this ''Wizard of Oz'' aspect of the technology when I visited Bob 
Lack's monitoring station in the London borough of Newham. A former 
London police officer, Lack attracted national attention -- including 
a visit from Tony Blair -- by pioneering the use of face-recognition 
technology before other people were convinced that it was entirely 
reliable. What Lack grasped early on was that reliability was in many 
ways beside the point.

Lack installed his first CCTV system in 1997, and he intentionally 
exaggerated its powers from the beginning. ''We put one camera out 
and 12 signs'' announcing the presence of cameras, Lack told me. ''We 
reduced crime by 60 percent in the area where we posted the signs. 
Then word on the street went out that we had dummy cameras.'' So Lack 
turned his attention to face-recognition technology and tried to 
create the impression that far more people's faces were in the 
database than actually are. ''We've designed a poster now about 
making Newham a safe place for a family,'' he said. ''And we're 
telling the criminal we have this information on him: we know his 
name, we know his address, we know what crimes he commits.'' It's not 
true, Lack admits, ''but then, we're entitled to disinform some 
people, aren't we?''

So you're telling the criminal that you know his name even though you 
don't, I asked? ''Right,'' Lack replied. ''Pretty much that's about 
advertising, isn't it?''

Lack was elusive when I asked him who, exactly, is in his database. 
''I don't know,'' he replied, noting that the local police chief 
decides who goes into the database. He would only make an ''educated 
guess'' that the database contains 100 ''violent street robbers'' 
under the age of 18. ''You have to have been convicted of a crime -- 
nobody suspected goes on, unless they're a suspected murderer -- and 
there has to be sufficient police intelligence to say you are 
committing those crimes and have been so in the last 12 weeks.'' When 
I asked for the written standards that determined who, precisely, was 
put in the database, and what crimes they had to have committed, Lack 
promised to send them, but he never did.

 From Lack's point of view, it doesn't matter who is in his database, 
because his system isn't designed to catch terrorists or violent 
criminals. In the three years that the system has been up and 
running, it hasn't resulted in a single arrest. ''I'm not in the 
business of having people arrested,'' Lack said. ''The deterrent 
value has far exceeded anything you imagine.'' He told me that the 
alarms went off an average of three times a day during the month of 
August, but the only people he would conclusively identify were local 
youths who had volunteered to be put in the database as part of an 
''intensive surveillance supervision program,'' as an alternative to 
serving a custodial sentence. ''The public statements about the 
efficacy of the Newham facial-recognition system bear little 
relationship to its actual operational capabilities, which are rather 
weak and poor,'' says Clive Norris of the University of Hull. ''They 
want everyone to believe that they are potentially under scrutiny. 
Its effectiveness, perhaps, is based on a lie.''

This lie has a venerable place in the philosophy of surveillance. In 
his preface to ''Panopticon,'' Jeremy Bentham imagined the social 
benefits of a ring-shaped ''inspection-house,'' in which prisoners, 
students, orphans or paupers could be subject to constant 
surveillance. In the center of the courtyard would be an inspection 
tower with windows facing the inner wall of the ring. Supervisors in 
the central tower could observe every movement of the inhabitants of 
the cells, who were illuminated by natural lighting, but Venetian 
blinds would ensure that the supervisors could not be seen by the 
inhabitants. The uncertainty about whether or not they were being 
surveilled would deter the inhabitants from antisocial behavior. 
Michel Foucault described the purpose of the Panopticon -- to induce 
in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that 
assures the automatic functioning of power.'' Foucault predicted that 
this condition of visible, unverifiable power, in which individuals 
have internalized the idea that they may always be under 
surveillance, would be the defining characteristic of the modern age.

Britain, at the moment, is not quite the Panopticon, because its 
various camera networks aren't linked and there aren't enough 
operators to watch all the cameras. But over the next few years, that 
seems likely to change, as Britain moves toward the kind of 
integrated Web-based surveillance system that Visionics has now 
proposed for American airports and subway systems. At the moment, for 
example, the surveillance systems for the London underground and the 
British police feed into separate control rooms, but Sergio Velastin, 
a computer-vision scientist, says he believes the two systems will 
eventually be linked, using digital technology.

Velastin is working on behavioral-recognition technology for the 
London underground that can look for unusual movements in crowds, 
setting off an alarm, for example, when people appear to be fighting 
or trying to jump on the tracks. (Because human CCTV operators are 
easily bored and distracted, automatic alarms are viewed as the wave 
of the future.) ''Imagine you see a piece of unattended baggage which 
might contain a bomb,'' Velastin told me. ''You can back-drag on the 
image and locate the person who left it there. You can say where did 
that person come from and where is that person now? You can conceive 
in the future that you might be able to do that for every person in 
every place in the system.'' Of course, Velastin admitted, ''if you 
don't have social agreement about how you're going to operate that, 
it could get out of control.''

Once thousands of cameras from hundreds of separate CCTV systems are 
able to feed their digital images to a central monitoring station, 
and the images can be analyzed with face- and behavioral-recognition 
software to identify unusual patterns, then the possibilities of the 
Panopticon will suddenly become very real. And few people doubt that 
connectivity is around the corner; it is, in fact, the next step. 
''CCTV will become the fifth utility: after gas, electricity, sewage 
and telecommunications,'' says Jason Ditton, a criminologist at the 
University of Sheffield who is critical of the technology's 
expansion. ''We will come to accept its ubiquitousness.''

At the moment, there is only one fully integrated CCTV in Britain: it 
transmits digital images over a broadband wireless network, like the 
one Joseph Atick has proposed for American airports, rather than 
relying on traditional video cameras that are chained to dedicated 
cables. And so, for a still clearer vision of the interconnected 
future of surveillance, I set off for Hull, Britain's leading timber 
port, about three hours northeast of London. Hull has traditionally 
been associated not with dystopian fantasies but with fantasies of a 
more basic sort: for hundreds of years, it has been the prostitution 
capital of northeastern Britain.

Six years ago, a heroin epidemic created an influx of addicted young 
women who took to streetwalking to sustain their drug habit. Nearly 
two years ago, the residents' association of a low-income housing 
project called Goodwin Center hired a likable and enterprising young 
civil engineer named John Marshall to address the problem of 
under-age prostitutes having sex on people's windowsills.

Marshall, who is now 33, met me at the Hull railway station carrying 
a CCTV warning sign. Armed with more than a million dollars in public 
financing from the European Union, Marshall decided to build what he 
calls the world's first Ethernet-based, wireless CCTV system. 
Initially, Marshall put up 27 cameras around the housing project. The 
cameras didn't bother the prostitutes, who in fact felt safer working 
under CCTV. Instead, they scared the johns -- especially after the 
police recorded their license numbers, banged on their doors and 
threatened to publish their names in the newspapers. Business 
plummeted, and the prostitutes moved indoors or across town to the 
traditional red-light district, where the city decided to tolerate 
their presence in limited numbers.

But Marshall soon realized that he had bigger fish to fry than 
displacing prostitutes from one part of Hull to another. His 
innovative network of linked cameras attracted national attention, 
which led, a few months ago, to $20 million in grant money from 
various levels of government to expand the surveillance network 
throughout the city of Hull. ''In a year and a half,'' Marshall says, 
''there'll be a digital connection to every household in the city. As 
far as cameras go, I can imagine that, in 10 years' time, the whole 
city will be covered. That's the speed that CCTV is growing.'' In the 
world that Marshall imagines, every household in Hull will be linked 
to a central network that can access cameras trained inside and 
outside every building in the city. ''Imagine a situation where 
you've got an elderly relative who lives on the other side of the 
city,'' Marshall says. ''You ring her up, there's no answer on the 
telephone, you think she collapsed -- so you go to the Internet and 
you look at the camera in the lounge and you see that she's making a 
cup of tea and she's taken her hearing aid out or something.''

The person who controls access to this network of intimate images 
will be a very powerful person indeed. And so I was eager to meet the 
monitors of the Panopticon for myself. On a side street of Hull, near 
the Star and Garter Pub and the city morgue, the Goodwin Center's 
monitoring station is housed inside a ramshackle private security 
firm called Sentry Alarms Ltd. The sign over the door reads THE GUARD 
HOUSE. The monitoring station is locked behind a thick, black 
vault-style door, but it looks like a college computer center, with 
an Alicia Silverstone pinup near the door. Instead of an impressive 
video wall, there are only two small desktop computers, which receive 
all the signals from the Goodwin Center network. And the digital, 
Web-based images -- unlike traditional video -- are surprisingly 
fuzzy and jerky, like streaming video transmitted over a slow modem.

During my time in the control room, from 9 p.m. to midnight, I 
experienced firsthand a phenomenon that critics of CCTV surveillance 
have often described: when you put a group of bored, unsupervised men 
in front of live video screens and allow them to zoom in on whatever 
happens to catch their eyes, they tend to spend a fair amount of time 
leering at women. ''What catches the eye is groups of young men and 
attractive, young women,'' I was told by Clive Norris, the Hull 
criminologist. ''It's what we call a sense of the obvious.'' There 
are plenty of stories of video voyeurism: a control room in the 
Midlands, for example, took close-up shots of women with large 
breasts and taped them up on the walls. In Hull, this temptation is 
magnified by the fact that part of the operators' job is to keep an 
eye on prostitutes. As it got late, though, there weren't enough 
prostitutes to keep us entertained, so we kept ourselves awake by 
scanning the streets in search of the purely consensual activities of 
boyfriends and girlfriends making out in cars. ''She had her legs 
wrapped around his waist a minute ago,'' one of the operators said 
appreciatively as we watched two teenagers go at it. ''You'll be able 
to do an article on how reserved the British are, won't you?'' he 
joked. Norris also found that operators, in addition to focusing on 
attractive young women, tend to focus on young men, especially those 
with dark skin. And those young men know they are being watched: CCTV 
is far less popular among black men than among British men as a 
whole. In Hull and elsewhere, rather than eliminating prejudicial 
surveillance and racial profiling, CCTV surveillance has tended to 
amplify it.

After returning from the digital city of Hull, I had a clearer 
understanding of how, precisely, the spread of CCTV cameras is 
transforming British society and why I think it's important for 
America to resist going down the same path. ''I actually don't think 
the cameras have had much effect on crime rates,'' says Jason Ditton, 
the criminologist, whose evaluation of the effect of the cameras in 
Glasgow found no clear reduction in violent crime. ''We've had a fall 
in crime in the last 10 years, and CCTV proponents say it's because 
of the cameras. I'd say it's because we had a boom economy in the 
last seven years and a fall in unemployment.'' Ditton notes that the 
cameras can sometimes be useful in investigating terrorist attacks -- 
like the Brixton nail-bomber case in 1999 -- but there is no evidence 
that they prevent terrorism or other serious crime.

Last year, Britain's violent crime rates actually increased by 4.3 
percent, even though the cameras continued to proliferate. But CCTV 
cameras have a mysterious knack for justifying themselves regardless 
of what happens to crime. When crime goes up the cameras get the 
credit for detecting it, and when crime goes down, they get the 
credit for preventing it.

If the creation of a surveillance society in Britain hasn't prevented 
terrorist attacks, it has had subtle but far-reaching social costs. 
The handful of privacy advocates in Britain have tried to enumerate 
those costs by arguing that the cameras invade privacy. People behave 
in self-conscious ways under the cameras, ostentatiously trying to 
demonstrate their innocence or bristling at the implication of guilt. 
Inside a monitoring room near Runnymede, the birthplace of the Magna 
Carta, I saw a group of teenagers who noticed that a camera was 
pivoting around to follow them; they made an obscene gesture toward 
it and looked back over their shoulders as they tried to escape its 

The cameras are also a powerful inducement toward social conformity 
for citizens who can't be sure whether they are being watched. ''I am 
gay and I might want to kiss my boyfriend in Victoria Square at 2 in 
the morning,'' a supporter of the cameras in Hull told me. ''I would 
not kiss my boyfriend now. I am aware that it has altered the way I 
might behave. Something like that might be regarded as an offense 
against public decency. This isn't San Francisco.'' Nevertheless, the 
man insisted that the benefits of the cameras outweighed the costs, 
because ''thousands of people feel safer.''

There is, in the end, a powerfully American reason to resist the 
establishment of a national surveillance network: the cameras are not 
consistent with the values of an open society. They are technologies 
of classification and exclusion. They are ways of putting people in 
their place, of deciding who gets in and who stays out, of limiting 
people's movement and restricting their opportunities. I came to 
appreciate the exclusionary potential of the surveillance technology 
in a relatively low-tech way when I visited a shopping center in 
Uxbridge, a suburb of London. The manager of the center explained 
that people who are observed to be misbehaving in the mall can be 
banned from the premises. The banning process isn't very complicated. 
''Because this isn't public property, we have the right to refuse 
entry, and if there's a wrongdoer, we give them a note or a letter, 
or simply tell them you're banned.'' In America, this would provoke 
anyone who was banned to call Alan Dershowitz and sue for 
discrimination. But the British are far less litigious and more 
willing to defer to authority.

Banning people from shopping malls is only the beginning. A couple of 
days before I was in London, Borders Books announced the installation 
of a biometric face-recognition surveillance system in its flagship 
store on Charing Cross Road. Borders' scheme meant that that anyone 
who had shoplifted in the past was permanently branded as a 
shoplifter in the future. In response to howls of protest from 
America, Borders dismantled the system, but it may well be 
resurrected in a post-Sept. 11 world.

Perhaps the reason that Britain has embraced the new technologies of 
surveillance, while America, at least before Sept. 11, had 
strenuously resisted them, is that British society is far more 
accepting of social classifications than we are. The British desire 
to put people in their place is the central focus of British 
literature, from Dickens to John Osborne and Alan Bennett. The work 
of George Orwell that casts the most light on Britain's swooning 
embrace of CCTV is not ''1984.'' It is Orwell's earlier book ''The 
English People.''

''Exaggerated class distinctions have been diminishing,'' Orwell 
wrote, but ''the great majority of the people can still be 'placed' 
in an instant by their manners, clothes and general appearance'' and 
above all, their accents. Class distinctions are less hardened today 
than they were when I was a student at Oxford at the height of the 
Thatcher-era ''Brideshead Revisited'' chic. But it's no surprise that 
a society long accustomed to the idea that people should know their 
place didn't hesitate to embrace a technology designed to ensure that 
people stay in their assigned places.

Will America be able to resist the pressure to follow the British 
example and wire itself up with surveillance cameras? Before Sept. 
11, I was confident that we would. Like Germany and France, which are 
squeamish about CCTV because of their experience with 20th-century 
totalitarianism, Americans are less willing than the British to trust 
the government and defer to authority. After Sept. 11, however, 
everything has changed. A New York Times/CBS news poll at the end of 
September found that 8 in 10 Americans believe they will have to give 
up some of their personal freedoms to make the country safe from 
terrorist attacks.

Of course there are some liberties that should be sacrificed in times 
of national emergency if they give us greater security. But Britain's 
experience in the fight against terrorism suggests that people may 
give up liberties without experiencing a corresponding increase in 
security. And if we meekly accede in the construction of vast 
feel-good architectures of surveillance that have far-reaching social 
costs and few discernible social benefits, we may find, in calmer 
times, that they are impossible to dismantle.

It's important to be precise about the choice we are facing. No one 
is threatening at the moment to turn America into Orwell's Big 
Brother. And Britain hasn't yet been turned into Big Brother, either. 
Many of the CCTV monitors and camera operators and policemen and 
entrepreneurs who took the time to meet with me were models of the 
British sense of fair play and respect for the rules. In many ways, 
the closed-circuit television cameras have only exaggerated the 
qualities of the British national character that Orwell identified in 
his less famous book: the acceptance of social hierarchy combined 
with the gentleness that leads people to wait in orderly lines at 
taxi stands; a deference to authority combined with an appealing 
tolerance of hypocrisy. These English qualities have their charms, 
but they are not American qualities.

The promise of America is a promise that we can escape from the Old 
World, a world where people know their place. When we say we are 
fighting for an open society, we don't mean a transparent society -- 
one where neighbors can peer into each other's windows using the 
joysticks on their laptops. We mean a society open to the possibility 
that people can redefine and reinvent themselves every day; a society 
in which people can travel from place to place without showing their 
papers and being encumbered by their past; a society that respects 
privacy and constantly reshuffles social hierarchy.

The ideal of America has from the beginning been an insistence that 
your opportunities shouldn't be limited by your background or your 
database; that no doors should be permanently closed to anyone who 
has the wrong smart card. If the 21st century proves to be a time 
when this ideal is abandoned -- a time of surveillance cameras and 
creepy biometric face scanning in Times Square -- then Osama bin 
Laden will have inflicted an even more terrible blow than we now 

Jeffrey Rosen is an associate professor at George Washington 
University Law School and the legal affairs editor of The New 
Republic. He writes frequently on law for The Times Magazine.

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