Watching Surveillance Cameras on the Streets of New York

Friday, May 07, 2010 - 08:47 AM

The Takeaway's Jim Colgan interviewing passersby under a camera in Times Square (The Takeaway)

Our conversation about surveillance cameras touched a nerve among our listeners, as many wrote and called in. Takeaway digital editor Jim Colgan took to the New York streets to ask people whether they knew they were being observed...

Sometimes it takes seeing something to really know something. Even though most New Yorkers have an idea that there are surveillance cameras on the busy street corners of Manhattan, most people don't know where they are or what they are recording.

"That's kind of creepy," said Jonathan Prose, an IT worker from Brooklyn, who moments earlier said he had no problem with cameras recording the public. But when he saw a pixelated image of himself waving at a traffic camera at the corner of 9th Ave and 34th, he took pause. He was being shown the images streamed on a city website on the screen of an iPad.

This week, surveillance was suddenly on the minds of New Yorkers, as authorities released images from midtown cameras in the days after the attempted car bombing in Times Square. Even if the footage didn't lead to the eventual arrest of the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, and even if it left people wondering why they should be concerned about a man removing his shirt on a hot day, surveillance cameras were the only visuals in the high-profile terrorism investigation.

By the last count, the New York Civil Liberties Union said there were 8,000 cameras in Manhattan. That was in 2005. In 2010, they say there are just too many to track. But does this increasing watchful presence worry New Yorkers? Most people interviewed on the streets of midtown Manhattan seemed to think it was okay. Until they thought about the recordings.

"It's a tradeoff," said Ramon Burwill from Harlem. "I'd rather lose some of my privacy and know that I can walk down the streets safely in New York City."

Burwill was talking underneath a live web camera in Times Square, which was recording images that could be saved by anyone with an internet connection (including producers at WNYC). He said he didn't mind so many cameras around, as long as they weren't near his home.

When it was pointed out that there were likely cameras close to his Harlem apartment, he hesitated.

"If it's near my house, then that's a privacy intrusion," he said.

However, a group of Spanish exchange students interviewed under the same camera said right away that they were uncomfortable with that kind of public recording. In the middle of the interview, though, they turned to look at a billboard-size picture lighting up a Times Square skyscraper. It was a photo of the students that they had emailed a few days before to a service called "15 Minutes of Fame." They seemed okay with the cameras after that.

(Crossposted on


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