Theater Troupe Cries ‘Orwell!’ at Bloomberg’s Camera Plan

Fifteen minutes into a talk about surveillance cameras on a late September Sunday in Greenwich Village, Bill Brown pointed over the heads of an audience assembled at the southwestern corner of Washington Square Park.

“I bet none of you noticed the camera that has been staring at us this whole time,” Mr. Brown said.

A dozen 20-somethings craned their necks to make eye contact with a Police Department camera mounted atop a traffic light at the intersection of MacDougal Street and Washington Square South.

The crowd stared, blinking to make out a tiny lens inside a frosted black orb. Mr. Brown shook his head and coaxed the group to another spot.

“Cameras are too late to catch robbery, rape, terrorism,” he continued, positioning himself for effect in the blind spot of an antiquated closed-circuit TV camera mounted on a New York University dorm. A pair of gigantic military-issue binoculars hung over his black T-shirt. “You are mopping up the crime scene after the fact, and this is especially true with suicide bombers … who would prefer to be caught on video.”

For the past seven years, Mr. Brown, 48, a volunteer activist employed by day as a freelance copy editor for a midtown advertising firm, has offered free monthly tours of camera-equipped neighborhoods around the city. He also stages street theater productions in front of closed-circuit cameras in crowded parks and subway stations for the benefit of passersby—and for whomever happens to be monitoring the video feed.

The September start of a plan to equip the Financial District with a massive camera system by 2009, Mr. Brown says, has brought the surveillance issue to a “tipping point.”

Modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel” camera grid, the plan calls for 3,000 new closed-circuit cameras, over 100 electronic license plate readers, and automatic street barricades to be installed in the two-square-mile area south of Canal Street that is home to the Federal Reserve, the New York Stock Exchange and the headquarters of dozens of financial firms.

So far, the Police Department has kept secret the details, such as potential camera locations and contract negotiations. A spokesman for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in an interview earlier this month that the city had purchased 400 license plate readers in October.

Footage from the new cameras will be monitored from a single downtown station staffed by police and corporate security guards. The Lower Manhattan network will be funded partly by a $10 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

“What makes this initiative new,” Mr. Brown said, “is … the very large-scale cooperation between the federal government that actually buys the cameras but doesn’t watch them, and the watchers, who are individuals from private security firms hired by corporations and companies.

“The reason this is so important is that it confirms what Orwell foresaw in 1984, that there will be a single Big Brother.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at an Oct. 2 press conference in London that cameras are “a little bit of an infringement on your rights,” but he argued that they are necessary to make the city safer.

“We live in a dangerous world, and people want to have security cameras,” Mr. Bloomberg said after touring the Ring of Steel. “There are some people who don’t like the cameras, but the alternatives are so much worse. … It’s ridiculous, people who object to using technology.”

Some critics argue that the funding for hidden camera systems could be more effectively spent on traditional methods for reducing crime and deterring terrorists.

Theater Troupe Cries ‘Orwell!’ at Bloomberg’s Camera Plan