Cameras secretly record life in Manhattan Surveillance threatens privacy, group says

December 13, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Millions of people who live or work in Manhattan, or visit, are being secretly videotaped every day on public streets, sidewalks and parks by a proliferating array of surveillance cameras, according to a study by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

A block-by-block survey by volunteers found 2,380 surveillance cameras trained on public spaces, and the group says its total is undoubtedly conservative.

"Someone is watching where you're going and what you're doing," said the group's executive director, Norman Siegel.

The group is proposing that city and state officials hold hearings and adopt regulations intended to prevent the abuse of public surveillance. These measures include posting signs telling people that they are under surveillance, requiring camera owners to register their equipment and setting a time limit on how long tapes can be retained.

Although it is not certain who owns the cameras, the survey estimated that 2,000 are operated by private entities and the remainder by government agencies.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has endorsed the use of video surveillance to enhance public safety. His police commissioner, Howard Safir, said yesterday that such cameras had proved "incredibly effective," cutting crime by 30 percent to 50 percent in public housing projects. "The citizens love them," he said.

"You have no right to privacy in a public place," Safir added, and "no court order is required" to use cameras.

Critics say that while cameras may have legitimate uses as crime-fighting tools, the unfettered spread of surveillance threatens private freedom. That is especially true in New York, they say, where diversity and tolerance have been a magnet for unorthodox people seeking the big city's cloak of anonymity.

"We're a hub for freedom of thought, action and lifestyle," Siegel said.

"If you want to have pink and gray hair, this is a place where people can be whatever they are. There's a right to be anonymous and not be observed by government."

Most of the surveillance cameras are on Wall Street and in midtown, the survey found, and the biggest concentration -- 70 -- is found in three blocks around Madison Square Garden. "We were really shocked to see how many cameras are out there," Siegel added.

As civil liberties workers pressed colored push pins, each one NTC representing a camera, into a 10-foot-long map of Manhattan at a news conference yesterday, they found that the pins were too dense in some places to accommodate all of them.

Siegel said of one block of Wall Street, "I don't think we can get any more pins in there."

"We should be driving the technology, not the technology driving us," he said. "The cameras are already here, but without any public debate or rules, and it raises a slew of questions.

"Most New Yorkers don't know they're being taped," Siegel said. By releasing the map and giving information about the cameras on the group's Web site, he hopes to provoke debate. "We're not filing suit now; we're going to the court of public opinion."

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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