Brooklyn loves surveillance! Borough residents want more cameras despite ominous warnings

Ridgites seek spy cameras on Fifth Avenue
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

It’s official: Brooklynites’ every movement, every phone call, and practically every step is being tracked by some government agency, and most of us don’t give a damn about it.

The companies that we trust with our personal information while we browse the internet are piping our online activity to the feds. The sidewalks that we walk on have more cameras focusing on them than a soundstage at the Barclays Center. The numbers we dial on our cellphones are being logged in giant government databases. And when we drive our cars, the EZ-Pass tags that make it so easy to pay tolls are also tracking our movements around the city.

Face it — New York has all of the tools in place for our next mayor to make it an oppressive place to live, and civil libertarians say that has to change.

“There are lots more government cameras out there and there are no protections,” said Chris Dunn, a lawyer at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “That’s something that the next mayor will have to think about.”

The civil liberties organization has warned New York government officials about the city’s massive security infrastructure before. In a 2006 study, the group found 4,176 security cameras in Lower Manhattan alone. Now, Dunn said, the number of security cameras is so high that it is uncountable.

“Since 2006, there are many, many more cameras and there are no more protections,” Dunn said.

Safe and secure: Some residents want to see more night-vision security cameras like this one monitoring their neighborhoods.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

And yet, no civil liberties issue besides stop-and-frisk is taking center stage in the 2013 election season and, according to a recent survey, an overwhelming majority of Brooklynites could care less about surveillance. In fact, 81 percent of borough residents want more security cameras in public places, according to the Quinnipiac University poll.

“Maybe they like that, walking on the street, someone is watching over them,” said Pat Smith, a spokesman for the pollsters.

That is certainly how the current city administration likes to present it. Mayor Bloomberg and police chief Ray Kelly have often pointed to 14 terrorist plots that they say have been thwarted thanks to aggressive New York police surveillance. The truth is much more complicated and only two or three of the plots represented clear threats, according to a Pro Publica analysis. Of those plots, agencies besides the New York Police Department stopped two and the third, a car-bombing of Time Square in 2010, failed only due to the poor bomb-making skills of the man behind it.

But Brooklynites seem to think that more cameras do not necessarily mean less freedom of movement or assembly. Nearly three quarters of polled residents said that the risk of terrorism should not be used to violate their civil liberties. Apparently all the cameras, the federal interception of phone and internet data, and new technologies the New York police are looking into like drones and portable body scanners have not raised red flags.

That is an oversight, Dunn said, because surveillance infrastructure allows the people behind the controls to invade privacy with impunity. The civil libertarian gave as an example the time police used a camera-mounted helicopter to film people having sex.

Not all police surveillance sounds like dystopian science fiction, though. The New York Police Department has spied on Muslim neighborhoods and liberal political groups for years the old-fashioned way: using undercover cops.

Eye in the sky: An EZ-Pass box is just one way that government agencies can track Brooklynites' every move.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Reach reporter Jaime Lutz at jlutz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow her on Twitter @jaime_lutz.