ExperimentSousveillance and the impossibility of not being seen in New York City
Hopes&Fears challenged a friend to document and avoid surveillance cameras for a week. This is his story.
God, I love being on camera. I love looking at my stupid face on Instagram. I love looking at other people’s stupid faces on Instagram. I love it when a hottie looks at my Instagram and likes a selfie from three months ago. Take, eat, insta-followers, this is my cyber-body which is given unto thee, do this in remembrance of me.
That’s why we’re all in this game right? To be remembered?
One of my favorite hashtags that’s been floating around for a minute now has to be #wokeuplikethis. It’s a perfect meme in its own internet-trashy brain-dead way. It evokes a goofy offhanded hip-hop braggadocio that is totally race, age and gender neutral. It reflects our current fascination with the nineties Beavis and Butthead slacker lifestyle but most importantly, it reflects a kind of identity politics that positively empowers an individual’s natural narcissistic impulses. Everyone gets that feel when you roll out of bed and look in the mirror and you’re all like “Ungh! Yeah, I’d swipe right on that cute face in my mirror.” #wokeuplikethis. We’ve all uniformly decided that #wokeuplikethis naturally denotes a positive self-image which is humorous to me because the phrase in itself is sarcastic. It is a statement of positive self-image and it is necessary because we are on camera almost all of the time, everywhere.
Several weeks ago, I was tasked with taking a photo of every surveillance camera I saw on my daily commute in New York City. I was also told to avoid the ones I’d taken pictures of and whose locations I knew about. I Laughed Out Loud, in response. If you live in New York, you know that this is absolutely 100% impossible. There are cameras everywhere; on every street corner, in every bar, bank, restaurant, office building, you name it. It is a stark landscape if you actually take the time to see it but we don’t because it is too distracting from our everyday lives.
Day 1: Sunday, April 12th I stepped out of my apartment into a brisk spring morning, stretched my arms to the shining sun and then immediately got popped by two cameras I’d never noticed pointing outward from my apartment’s windowsill. I had never seen them but there they were. Maybe they'll even catch the maniac who's putting Associated Supermarket coupons in my fence every single day. Literally every single day. I snapped some photos and moved on.
Around the corner from my house is a monolithic hipster loft. I sang the Pokemon theme song for each photo of a camera I took there, “gotta catch em all.” I took ten photos and crossed the street where I noticed more on various buildings. Zig-zagging down this block took ten minutes and I still couldn't avoid the eye of certain cameras.
Ascending the staircase of the J train I pulled my cap down anticipating a free-for-all photoshoot. Oddly enough I had a tough time finding the cameras. The MTA does a good job of placement, most of the cameras in the station were concealed in the card dispensers or in the attendant’s booth. Some were pointed right at the turnstiles obviously to catch fare hoppers (like me when I’m broke). On the raised platform the cameras are boxy old gadgets but even so there were few to speak of and they mostly seemed to be for the conductor to ensure that idiots weren’t going to get side swiped by a train. Nevertheless, the Myrtle-Broadway station was a no-go zone for me from that day on.
At work there were two cameras pointed at me from 8am until 4pm presumably to catch any crooks rifling through the register. Maybe they’re there to catch my sick latte art… actually, I’m gonna go ahead and say that is why they’re there so those two don’t really count because my latte art is dope. #wokeuplikethis.
The rest of the day followed suit. I went to a friend’s music performance that night and couldn't get through the bar without getting filmed. Smoking out front I took two photos. At the end of the day I counted all of my photos; there was a total of 25. Keep in mind that a good nine hours of my day was spent stationary at work. That number is enough to validate the paranoia of any conspiracy theorist.
I was starting to see the lidless black eyeballs everywhere they didn't exist which is insane because they were already everywhere.
Signal to nowhere
Day 2: Monday, April 13th I avoided going down the streets where I’d already taken photos but the zig-zagging continued as I hid from the cameras. Every street by my house is absolutely littered with them. On a street parallel to the one I’d taken the day before I found a camera whose RCA wires hung limp from the black half-sphere. Clearly the video signal was going nowhere but its owners had left it up. Perhaps they’d never even plugged it in.
This gave me hope for a moment thinking of all the cameras I could avoid if I just paid attention enough to see where the wires ended. This proved futile over time, as most of the cameras had concealed wires or none at all. So, as far as I was concerned, they were all functional. I was a flightless bird in the land of a thousand scarecrows.
Reasonable expectations of what
Day 3: Tuesday, April 14th I became aware that dodging the wall cameras wasn’t enough: one would have to scan along the tops of buildings to see if anything was a black half sphere on a pole. If you scooped up the skyline of Brooklyn you’d have enough scrap metal to build a fleet of aircraft carriers. Lamps. Cell towers. Oblong smoke stacks. Ancient antennae refuse. Shattered satellite dishes. I was starting to see the lidless black eyeballs everywhere they didn't exist which is insane because they were already everywhere.
Oddly enough, though, at this point in the week I had collected enough data to observe that a majority of the cameras were privately owned. Liquor stores had them pointed inward and outward on their awnings. Bars had them. Junkyards had them. Car washes. I’d venture to say that about 90% of the ones I saw fed back to an external hard-drive or shabby flat screen tucked away in a corner, that is to say most were closed circuit systems. If a bad guy breaks your Liquor Store window, you catch his face, and report him to authorities afterwards. I did a little research into this and discovered that legally Closed Circuit Television or surveillance cameras are restricted by the fourth Amendment, the prohibition of unlawful search and seizure.
In order to use footage from a security camera in court a lawyer must prove that a person did not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” This is why you don’t see security cameras in public restrooms. Hotel rooms. Your home. Phone booths. In each of these locations you can reasonably expect that your image and voice are protected against surveillance without a warrant. The government agrees that your junk is your junk until you whip your junk out in public. The issue gets a little more conflated when you consider that “public” is a subjective word. A car is a perfect example. If you’ve got your family jewels out in your car on the highway and you’re like #wokeuplikethis to everyone in traffic around you, your “subjective expectation of privacy” probably doesn’t jive with society at large. On the other hand, if you’re rolling a blunt behind tinted windows in the back of an escalade, you’ve got a good grasp on doing things like a boss and also have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.
The government agrees that your junk is your junk until you whip your junk out in public. The issue gets a little more conflated when you consider that “public” is a subjective word.
The law and the idea
Day 4: Wednesday, April 15th It is literally a law in New York that cabs without the plastic cage between driver and passenger must have a hidden camera on board. We’re talking fleets and fleets of invisible cameras floating around the city that might capture my image if I got in a cab. My cab driver seemed unimpressed.
Day 5: Thursday, April 16th The surveillance installed by public funds was much more sinister and precise. I literally had to go out of my way to search for it because most of it was in locations of extreme poverty. I rarely walk through the projects by my house, the Bushwick Houses, but as an experiment I wandered through with a friend anticipating surveillance. We were not disappointed. Every entrance had at least four large cameras pointed at it. I peeked in one of the lobbies as a resident walked inside and quickly counted five more cameras on a ceiling. Beyond physical cameras there was the idea of cameras proposed by countless turd-colored municipal signs reminding you someone was watching. In one quick lap I took 22 photos on the exterior of the buildings.
↑ some of the cameras that were photographed during the experiment
Brunch-ass eating idiots
Day 6: Friday, April 17th I walked around gentrified Williamsburg the next day and my chi felt off. I wasn’t seeing as many cameras. I spotted a few scattered about, many were the regular black domes but they were harder to find. Some were simply the size of hairpins. I began running back and forth across the street and into the doorways of restaurants looking frantically for cameras. I had to get my fix.
It’s not that there were no cameras in Williamsburg. It was that the upper middle class crowd that has moved in (to whom I include my idiot brunch-ass eating self) have the money to purchase invisible cameras and obtain services that place them strategically. A far cry from the state installed cameras of Bushwick Houses which are massive, visible, and ensure you know who put them there and where the footage is going.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in this life it is that my white body is wreathed in layers and layers of privilege and that privilege is primarily devoted towards making me feel miles from death or imprisonment. I can try to imagine what others must feel in seeing viral videos of members of their community getting cut down by a supposed authority figure; it must feel like a swiftly approaching gravestone lobbed inward from parapets facing outward.
I walked around gentrified Williamsburg the next day and my chi felt off. I wasn’t seeing as many cameras.
Day 7: Saturday, April 18th By Saturday I was a pro. I walked to my friend’s office to get lunch and on the way I was just popping blurry photos like a sniper. My dexterity on the CCTV snaps was unparalleled. That day I Googled the word "surveillance" and discovered that I had unwittingly been participating in a practice called “sousveillance.” A term inspired by real-life body modification art, cyborg culture, it was a brush with cyberpunk theory forwarded by accelerationism a few years ago.
Sousveillance breaks down the word “surveillance” coming from the French sur (“from above”) and veiller (“to watch”). Sous, on the other hand, means “from below.” It is the act of surveilling the surveiller by the surveilled. The term was developed by Steve Mann, an artist and intellectual fascinated with wearable computing, whose work focuses on the coagulation of international corporate entities with governments. Mann did not invent the idea, though he made a clever name for it. Depicting violence in art to speak truth to power is old. Filming authority was encouraged during Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. In 2011, a two story mural by my house depicted men and women in the foreground filming a silhouetted NYPD officer handcuffing a hunched figure. The face of a young woman looks out at the sidewalk with a finger pulling down her lower eyelid in stern vigilance. Along the mural were bullet points on when and why filming police was legal. Today, even the NAACP blog provides information on the do's and don'ts of hand-held recordings. In a way sousveillance is a sincere grassroots effort to obtain something that very closely resembles truth. Videos of imbalanced encounters with police appear everyday on websites like CopBlock.org, twitter hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, reddit, tumblr.
Eyeballs of the crowd
The next day The day after my week long affair with sousveillance was April 19th, the day Freddie Gray died. In the Freddie Gray case, footage from a number of bystanders and local surveillance cameras detail what appears to be violent foul play by the Baltimore police. He was forcibly struck by the police, thrown into a car, was not strapped in, and the officers took a wildly circuitous route to the hospital. This we know from surveillance but there is no footage of what went on inside the van. Presumably, during this ride, Gray hit his spine on a hard protrusion, and his life began to trickle away. During my week of surveillance Freddie Gray lay dying in a hospital bed.
Yet, the frequency of videos documenting police misconduct is perhaps even more alarming than the account of his death. Now that imagery is a part of our everyday language we are learning to speak with it and the tips of icebergs are violently emerging everywhere. In the wake of Mike Brown’s death examples of everyday injustices and misuse of power float through our info feeds. Noteworthy because, unlike Rodney King or long before the violence at Selma, this recent string of videos is indebted to the high speed internet on my phone. Indeed, many recent accounts, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, were fueled by smart phone recordings of their deaths going viral. Despite the bleak content we watch because death may be our most basic commonality. Alternatively, to scream #wokeuplikethis is a privilege granted only to the living.
Last week I watched Baltimore protesters destroying a police car on CNN.com. Destroying the car with an orange traffic cone no less, a symbol of dayglo authority. One protester jumped on the hood and put a fallen police cap on his head playfully swinging his hips at the watching cameras with a bit of sardonic humor. Playing it up for the camera is what we do best these days; everyone knows that someone is watching. Why not? MLK knew it at Selma. Headlines; the eyeballs of the crowd: this is what sways the imagination of the masses towards justice.
This past Wednesday in Baltimore, in the midst of protests for Gray, the Orioles and the White Sox played a baseball game in an empty stadium. A first in Major League Baseball. I could see the headline before the game even finished: America’s oldest pastime takes its first selfie.
Now that imagery is a part of our everyday language we are learning to speak with it and the tips of icebergs are violently emerging everywhere.