There was a time when if you got the strange feeling someone was watching you, you could usually write it off to paranoia.
Those days are long gone.
Maybe you've gotten used to the idea that your every move will be recorded as you try to decide which snacks you want to buy in a convenience store or while you pump your gas, but in a growing number of towns and cities, the scrutiny you are under is becoming more intense.
Civil liberties groups estimate there are as many as 3 million surveillance cameras currently in operation in the United States, making it seem that the "surveillance society" civil libertarians warn about is already here. Was George Orwell just 20 years off?
"The case against the cameras is hard to make quickly, because it's more about the long-term effect of a surveillance society," said Jeffrey Rosen, a professor at George Washington University School of Law and author of "The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age."
"It is quite feasible and easy to imagine a system of ubiquitous surveillance of anyone at any time," he said.
In New York City, a couple of groups have been trying to do something to help people avoid the attention and to try to bring greater attention to the issue.
The New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign has begun a project to map surveillance cameras that are pointed at public spaces around the city. The project will initially map all the cameras in Manhattan and selected neighborhoods in the other boroughs, but the eventual goal is to cover the entire city, NYBORDC project director Udi Ofer said.
The Institute for Applied Autonomy, a technological research and development group that says it is "dedicated to the cause of individual and collective self-determination," has created software that can be downloaded from its Web site that it says allows a user to plot a video surveillance-free path between any two points in Manhattan. The information on the location of the cameras was provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union, according to the Web site.
Ofer said the concern in New York is mostly about private surveillance cameras, but in other cities law enforcement itself is stepping up the use of surveillance technology.
Cameras Able to Alert Police to Suspicious Behavior
The Los Angeles Police Department recently announced it is installing surveillance cameras on Hollywood Boulevard, what Capt. Michael Downing described as an effort to "raise the ethical stature of the area."
If the cameras on Hollywood Boulevard help them make more arrests of drug dealers, vandals, thieves and muggers, the LAPD will install them on some of the city's other well-known thoroughfares, such as Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards and Western Avenue.
Chicago has announced a project to install 250 new surveillance cameras, to add to the 2,000 already in place throughout the city. The new cameras, though, will be equipped with computer programs that will alert police if someone behaves in what might be a suspicious manner around locations considered potential targets for terrorists.
The system was designed based on the surveillance system in use in London, as well as those used in many Las Vegas casinos and some used in the military.
Civil liberties groups in Chicago raised concerns when the project was announced by Mayor Richard Daley and Office of Emergency Management and Communications Director Ron Huberman, but the mayor said all the cameras will be directed at public spaces.
"You could photograph me walking down the street. They do it every day. I don't object," he said. "You do it every day. You have that right."
But civil liberties groups and some scholars who study privacy issues say there might be a very real difference, and question whether the risks of becoming a "surveillance society" are worth the purported benefits of being watched so closely.
"It may be right to think it is one thing to have your neighbor watch you was you walk down the street, and quite another to have the government plant a camera on your back and follow your every move as you go about your day," Rosen said.
Rosen cited a report done by the United Kingdom's Home Office on the value of closed circuit TV cameras as crime prevention tools, which found mixed results in its examination of studies done in Great Britain and the United States.
"It was found that CCTV had no effect on violent crimes (five studies), but had a significant desirable effect on vehicular crimes," the Home Office report said.
'Playing on the Public's Fears of Terrorism'
"The four evaluations of CCTV in public transportation systems present conflicting evidence of effectiveness: two found a desirable effect, one found no effect, and one found an undesirable effect on crime," the report said. "For the two effective studies, the use of other interventions make it difficult to say with certainty that CCTV produced the observed crime reductions."
Yet, Rosen and Ofer say, the installation of such systems in the United States is popular with many people because of the widely held impression that it is an effective crime-fighting tool, and because of concerns about terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The government is playing on the public's fears of terrorism," Rosen said.
A study this year by the European Commission of the effect of the 200,000 surveillance cameras in operation in London found that crime has risen 10 percent since 2002.
American law enforcement officials say, though, that even if questions about the effectiveness of CCTV systems as crime prevention tools have not yet been answered, their effectiveness as evidence-gathering tools is not in doubt, said Beau Thurnauer, the Coventry, Conn., police chief and head of the crime prevention panel of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The case of Carlie Brucia, the Florida girl whose abduction near a car wash was caught on a surveillance camera, brought that into focus for Americans who saw the tape played over and over on cable TV news.
More recently, on Nov. 7, surveillance cameras in a Corona, Calif., shopping mall parking lot filmed the apparent abduction of a woman, who fled frantically from people in a black Toyota Camry Solara as several people stood by and watched. The film of the woman being grabbed, dragged to the car and put in the trunk was blurry, but police said they hoped to be able to enhance the images to help with their investigation.
What concerns Ofer, Rosen and others is what they say is a lack of regulation concerning surveillance cameras, and their great potential for abuse, both by overzealous police and by those who might turn surveillance into voyeurism.
They say the notion that the only people who have anything to fear from increased surveillance are criminals or political activists are mistaken.
Another British study, done at Hull University, found that one in 10 surveillance cameras was at one time or another used to follow women for voyeuristic ends, and in New York City, a surveillance tape from a public housing project that recorded a black man committing suicide was posted on a racist Web site, allegedly by one of the police officers who was supposed to be monitoring the cameras.
Lack of Regulation
Ofer said that one CCTV camera he noticed earlier this fall on top of a building in midtown Manhattan that may have been intended for some kind of security purpose appeared to be being used for another goal. At various times when he returned to monitor the camera -- which he said was very high tech, able to swivel in all directions and outfitted with a powerful zoom lens -- was pointing directly at windows in the hotel and apartment buildings across the street.
Videos of unsuspecting people -- women changing in store dressing rooms, couples fighting or having sex -- that were caught by the British surveillance cameras have wound up for sale on the Internet.
When it comes to use by police, there are problems because as technology has advanced, regulations on the use of that technology have not kept pace, Ofer said. While police must get a warrant to carry out audio surveillance -- requiring that they show probable cause for why the target of their investigation should come under the closer scrutiny -- there are no such requirements for video surveillance.
"We are a country based on limiting the powers of government and allowing government to engage in any kind of intrusiveness only if it can justify that intrusiveness," Ofer said. "The question is whether that level of intrusiveness is justified by a legitimate aim. That question hasn't even been asked yet."
The lack of regulation and rapidly advancing technology concerns Rosen as well, because he said that it could create an erosion of the meaning of "reasonable expectation of privacy," the legal standard used to determine what is and what is not intrusive.
"It's entirely circular -- as technology develops, expectation of privacy diminishes," he said.
Canada and some European countries have avoided this problem by framing the question differently -- asking instead how much privacy should citizens in a civilized country be expected to be able to demand, he said.
That is the question that Ofer said the NYBORDC project will get more Americans asking.