By Phil Patton
It's early morning in the 'burbs. My eyes are barely open, but the video eye is on me. I stop by the convenience store for coffee and newspapers. On the grainy screen of a boxy monitor behind the clerk, I catch a glimpse of a tiny figure that, after a moment, I realize represents me. Opening my wallet reminds me that I'm as short of cash as usual, so I stop at the ATM. Through a one-way mirror, a video camera is recording the transaction.
I drive along New Jersey's Route 3 toward New York City, quite possibly under the video observation of the New Jersey State Police, my state being one of several that have tested remote stations that capture radar-gun readings and license-plate numbers and mail out speeding tickets.
As I descend the dread "helix" into the Lincoln Tunnel, I go on TV for Panasonic. Atop a huge billboard advertising the company's camcorders is the "Panasonic Traffic Cam," an absurdly tiny device that perches like an insect above a sign bearing the face of a white-knuckled driver. The driver looks a bit like the late John Candy - all exasperation as the kids behind him quibble and scream.
I can tune the radio to 1010 WINS to hear what the camera sees: in a cunning marketing tie-in, I get "reports from the Panasonic Traffic Cam high above the helix - there's a 15 minute delay at the Lincoln...."
At the entrance to the tunnel, I pause to pay my toll, beneath cameras to deter toll robbers. Inside the dipping, tiled tube of the tunnel, cameras reside in shells like little jet engines, or maybe like the underwater mini-sub Lloyd Bridges rode in Sea Hunt; these protect the lenses from the ravages of diesel dust.
Once in Manhattan, I park in the garage above the Port Authority bus terminal. Here cameras track me to the elevator, down past the magazine stand and the espresso bar.
What do they see?
I catch one glimpse; beside the escalator is a room, full of some two-dozen video monitors, like a destroyer's bridge, only the guard is bored and dozing. But who watches all the other TVs that watch me, watch you, watch all of us more than we ever realize?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the watchers don't like to talk. The people at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are unwilling to show me where they watch me. Another Port Authority property is the World Trade Center, where investigators scoured videotapes from cameras on the tower's parking decks in their attempts to apprehend suspects in the 1993 bombing. Security is a delicate topic with them.
So I head for the International Security Conference & Exposition, the security insider's trade convention, where I'll get a chance to see what's at the other end of the camera for a change.
For a long time now, America has seemed like a country where most people watch television most of the time. But only recently are we beginning to notice that it is also a country where television watches us.
We're all on security cameras, or seccams (pronounced see-cams). At malls, hotels, airports, fast-food restaurants; in offices; on highways; in front of machines - we star in a TV system whose cast dwarfs that of broadcast and cable. In the world of security TV, the equation of home TV is reversed: the audience is small, the programming vast.
I remember very specifically when I first began to realize this. It was one night in the summer of 1993, when I was watching CNN. The hypodermic-in-the-Pepsi-can scare was at its height. Dozens of soda cans with syringes in them were showing up around the country. But Pepsi had located a security camera in a Colorado convenience store and caught one of the alleged tamperers red handed -- or at least fuzzy-gray handed. From that point on, what seemed an epidemic of tampering was revealed to be an epidemic of copycat fraud.
But what was most astonishing was that Pepsi could manage to call up the incriminating clip out of all the hours of videotape in all the convenience stores across America.
No one can say for sure how many hours the average American is on TV, but according to the Security Industry Association, the US spends about US$1billion a year on electronic security-camera systems. We pay to watch ourselves. And more and more people are taking notice of this fact. A 1991 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 11 percent of the companies surveyed used video cameras to monitor workers. And many department stores even use video cameras, set behind one-way mirrors, in changing rooms, beneath signs that vaguely announce "inventory control measures in place."
This has concerned the ACLU and some unions. People should at least know they are on TV, the argument goes. Such a requirement is at the heart of bills now in the US Congress sponsored by Senator Paul Simon of Illinois and Representative Pat Williams of Montana. Smelling business-spoiling regulations, the seccam industry opposes the legislation. The Security Industry Association argues that advertising cameras' placement would make it easier for workers to avoid their scrutiny, easier to pocket parts or secrets, easier to embezzle, easier to do drugs. "A blueprint for criminals," Bill Zalud, the editor of Security Magazine called it. "Pro-crime legislation."
But political issues obscure the deeper ways in which video surveillance has changed the texture of our lives, mutated it in subtle ways that only a hidden technology possesses. When black-and-white footage appears on CNN, you know something is up. On television, black-and-white video is a visual cue that somebody is about to do something wrong: it signifies a bank heist or a convenience-store job. Even citizen camcorder captures of dramatic scenes, like the Rodney King beating, are in color. Only security systems or the Feds use black and white -- witness the Abscam tapes, or John DeLorean's hotel-room wheeling and dealing. We all look guilty as hell on black-and-white video; it's a moving mug shot. Mother Teresa buying a granola bar at the Gas N Go would appear felonious on such tapes.
But the effects of video style are broader than this: they change the way we imagine ourselves now and the way we record ourselves for history. Every era is characterized by the style of its images. Modern eras are characterized by the style of their moving images. We can never imagine Woodrow Wilson in cinemascope. And in our collective memories, World War I's General Pershing can never move without jerking and snappily saluting. The Kodachromed '50s possess a wholly different feel from the black-and-white, noir shadows of the '40s. Now that video cameras feed into little boxes on our Mac or Windows screens, one wonders: will our own era be remembered in the stutter smear of QuickTime in a window, the trembling mumbletypeg of MPEG, once other methods of compression and playback succeed these?
Hollywood, at least, has become aware of the phenomenology of seccams. The films Sneakers and The Getaway feature crooks who defeat video security by looping the tape and fiddling with the clock. In Demolition Man, video cams monitor sidewalks and streets in the California of the future, though cameras are already scanning key sections of LA freeways to help control traffic. But the ultimate cinematic statement of the dangers of video surveillance is Sliver, a nightmare vision of a private individual who has the power to watch us all. The villainy practiced by the William Baldwin slime ball is a twist on the old theme that knowledge is power: its vision is manipulation by video.
Security at the International Security Conference was tight. Business, I had been told by John Galante, executive director for the Security Industry Association, "is under siege from within and without. Thirty percent of all small businesses fail because of employee theft. You've got to watch that cash register." Even the security business, apparently, has to watch its business.
The national gathering takes itself very seriously. This, Galante said, "is the convention they show in Coppola's film The Conversation, the one where Gene Hackman walks around looking at the mikes."
All around were cameras and monitors. The comings and goings of conventioneers unrolled on computer-screen video at the slightly druggy pace of 15 frames a second, or slower - sometimes just five or two frames a second - serialized microtome slices of reality.
There are familiar names above some booths. Sony Corporation has a new 168-hour VCR. Sanyo Industrial Video Division is proud of its cameras monitoring highways in the state of Florida. Samsung has a new 1/3-inch CCD camera the size of a Mother's Day boutonnière. All the trimmings are here as well: housings and domes and mirrors to hide the cameras, as well as special night-vision devices that automatically snap in place over their lenses when dusk falls, then slide away at dawn.
Amid screens on screens on screens, I encountered the vocabulary of the industry, as stiff and unyielding as the encasements that conceal and protect the cameras: "premises control," "asset retention," and "event-driven monitoring."
This last phrase trips from the tongue of an eager young salesman for the Iowa firm of IMAC, for Integrated Multimedia Access Control Inc. The IMAC program feeds voice, image, and video into a central Windows-based system that replaces the bank of monitors and the dozing guard. The monitor shows a series of views from seccams. In one, labeled "developmental office," a door is menaced by an unsubtle perp wielding a sledgehammer.
At a convenience store, explains the salesman, the "alarmed event sequence" might run like this: "the door opens, the beer cooler opens, the door closes - the cash register doesn't ring up." Triggered by a pattern suggesting shoplifting, the camera would jump from monitoring two or three frames a second to a full 15. "Intelligent digital video" they call it at IMAC, and it can be operated from anywhere in the world, the cameras aimed with a joystick or mouse and their images fed onto the screen of a laptop.
Most of the vendors here are members of the Security Industry Association. They are still fighting hard against the Simon/Williams bills that would limit the use of video cameras in the workplace. At the convention, the Security Industry Association presents poll results showing that only about 10 percent of people are bothered by surveillance. Most are more concerned about security and welcome the presence of cameras. According to the Security Industry Association, 75 percent of respondents said being monitored made them feel safer. But the poll did not focus on the observations of workers in the workplace, the center of the debate.
The issues of employee surveillance were cast into relief by a New York City robbery at Tiffany & Co., on Fifth Avenue, last September. Police suspected from the start that it was an inside job. The perps took not only a couple million in jewels but also the security-camera videotapes. A case like this, argues John Galante of the Security Industry Association, illustrates the very real need for covert surveillance - at Tiffany's, another set of cameras that employees don't know about. That way, an inside job won't be inside enough. To Galante, this is only one argument in favor of preserving the right of employers to install hidden cameras, a right that is threatened by the legislation crafted by Williams and Simon.
Over the last few months, I have been paying attention to the cameras that watch me, compiling a mental file on their effects. I have become familiar with glass ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity, with weatherproof and mini-sub-like housings. I have learned the particular crick-necked angles, querulous and bird-like, at which cameras tilt on their mountings to peer at us.
Once you start looking, you see cameras everywhere. In a general store in a small town in Western North Carolina where my great-grandfather shopped, a place with negligible crime, I discover an elegant and cunningly tiny Philips camera tucked into the corner, watching the overalls and work boots.
I notice the signs reading "surveillance being carried on for your safety." And my ears prick up at radio news stories like that of the factory workers who complained of strange-tasting coffee. They set up a hidden video camera, and, sure enough, the images revealed that the employee making the coffee was urinating into the pot.
Seccam footage has given TV news another edge over print. Such footage is a staple of tabloid TV - even the network news can rarely resist the shoot-out in the convenience store. Such video clips are the TV equivalent of the images from the '40s by the great tabloid photographer Weegee, of bleeding mob victims and tear-stained refugees from tenement fires. Now the tabloid press has to fight to keep up with tabloid TV.
Getting my coffee at the convenience store on my way to the security convention, I picked up a copy of the New York Post, which a few days before had printed a frame-by-frame sequence of a recent crime. A taxi driver named Glenn Iscoe tried to stop a robbery at the Oasis Bagel Shop on Horace Harding Expressway, in Fresh Meadows, Queens. The robber turned and killed him with a single shot to the head. The seccam got it all.
"Death of a Hero" the Post trumpeted, running five frames of the seccam footage, comic-book style. The language in the captions whipped up sentiment in a vain effort to convey the shock of the actual video. One caption was vintage tabloid, worth repeating in full: Frame 5: "Totally unfazed by having just snuffed out an innocent life, the ruthless urban predator steps coolly around Iscoe's body to grab the loot and flee."
But the combination of seccams and tabloids also highlights the dangers of video goofs. Several years ago, after a series of ATM robberies in New York, police matched the time of one assault with the videotape at the ATM in question. The cops concluded that their suspect was a taxi driver named James Hairston. Hairston woke up one morning to find the police at his door and his face on the front of the New York Daily News, beneath the word WANTED! But the clock had malfunctioned. Hairston, a law-abiding citizen, promptly phoned his solicitor.
Commercial security is not the only sort that depends on video surveillance - so does national security. Our hopes of world peace rely at least partially on video: video surveillance cameras are now watching potential nuclear weapons facilities in Iraq. Inside the "Mother of All Battles" engineering facility near Baghdad, a handful of security cameras, whose tapes are reviewed every few months by nuclear-control agency representatives, are supposed to keep Saddam Hussein from developing the bomb.
But at the convention, I hear rumblings that new kinds of body patterns and motion detectors are supplementing and, in some cases, supplanting video. The future of "premises control," the experts tell me, belongs to "biometrics": fingerprints, prints of retinal patterns, or voiceprints. And for some reason, audio monitoring bothers people more than video, which is soundless, like silent movies. When it was revealed that a number of Dunkin' Donuts stores in the Northeast were making, as a security measure, audio recordings capable of picking up customers' conversations, customer outrage forced the company to remove the systems. The long visible video cameras remained.
Ironically, the people least on TV may be the TV stars. They don't buy their breakfast at Dunkin' Donuts. They avoid the cameras of malls and airports, of grocery stores and department stores (don't they all have personal buyers?). They travel in limousines, not buses. They enter buildings not through the lobbies with surveillance cams, but through back halls. The bigger the star, the less the surveillance. Even figuring their hours on broadcast TV, it's safe to say that Katie Couric and Barbara Walters, Dan and Connie and Ted, are on camera less than you are.
Seeing myself on surveillance-camera monitors doesn't necessarily bother me - but then I'm not on camera at work or home. The monitors I most often see are in the windows of those electronics shops for tourists in New York (the ones permanently broadcasting "Going-out-of-Business - Last Two Weeks!"). Seeing my face in their monitors as I pass dismays me not at all: they see me no more deeply than the tourist sees the city.
But another kind of image, oddly, seems intrusive: the video images you find at airport luggage security monitors. In a way they sum up the issue better than the real video. They are beautiful abstractions: now that false color is replacing black-and-white in the X-ray videos, soft and incidental parts of your life disappear into the colors of the technology - hues worthy of a Charles Sheeler watercolor or an Irving Penn photograph.
They show privacy as a protoplasm. Like fish that live at great depths, their bodies having evolved into transparent structures. Underwear vanishes, a sport coats leaves a mere shadow. But the hard centers of batteries and motors loom large and solid. It is an unexpected view of yourself, as though you were to look into the bathroom mirror and see - instead of your face - the contents of the medicine chest behind it.
It is as frightening as it is beautiful: a model of the bubbles in which we live, of the varying degrees of penetrability that constitute our personal effects, our files, our lives.
Phil Patton (email@example.com) is a contributing editor to Esquire. He is the author of Made in the USA.