Each day, a team of 4,000 robotic eyes captures every mundane second of life in Lower Manhattan.
New York’s “Ring of Steel” – known legally as the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative – keeps a daily watch over 1.7 square miles worth of the city’s most densely populated borough. The New York Police Department has access to more than 4,000 surveillance cameras in the area, about half city-operated and half privately owned. A few hundred exist solely to collect and catalogue the license plate number of every car that drives through town. If you drop a dollar in Battery Park, the NYPD can feasibly repeat back to you the bill’s serial number within minutes.
Media outlets as far-reaching as New York magazine, CNN and the New York Times have questioned the dragnet’s cost, efficacy and effect on civil liberties since the NYPD began beefing up its camera presence in 2006. Do the cameras actually prevent crime? There’s conflicting evidence. Should New Yorkers be allowing the city government to record their every move? Maybe, maybe not.
I bring this up because Temple’s Main Campus actually boasts more cameras per acre than Lower Manhattan.
Temple Police operate roughly 500 cameras around Main Campus, Acting Executive Director of Campus Safety Services Charlie Leone said in an interview with The Temple News. While this number is fairly in line with standards set around the Philadelphia area ¬– there are roughly 600 cameras on the University of Pennsylvania’s main campus and about 2,000 blanketed across Rutgers-New Brunswick – what’s remarkable is just how many lenses are crammed into Temple’s miniscule Main Campus.
According to Temple’s website, Main Campus takes up close to 114 acres of North Philadelphia real estate. Averaged out over the entire campus, this means that there are roughly 4.4 cameras per acre of Temple property.
Now, four cameras within an acre of land don’t seem like a particularly huge red flag on their own. However, the 4,000 or so cameras jammed into Lower Manhattan’s 1.7 square miles – 1,088 acres for those of us that don’t harvest snow peas – only average out to about 3.6 cameras per acre. This campus has topped the surveillance rate of a city condemned by the American Civil Liberties Union for warrantless surveillance.
Both Penn and Rutgers average around two cameras per acre.
Before anyone throws themselves into a tizzy, let’s be clear: Temples does not – yet – operate a paramilitary operation. According to a 2010 Bloomburg.com article, the NYPD’s camera systems include heat, chemical and biological sensors that Temple Police seem far from adopting.
“We don’t get into zoom technology, panning, stuff like that,” Leone said. “We don’t want privacy issues. We’re trying to stay away from being ‘Big Brother.’”
Moreover, we’re still not even talking “police state” security. Beijing, often touted as the most-watched city on the planet, boasts an estimated 800,000 cameras within its confines, according to an Atlantic Cities piece from November 2013. Astonishingly, London’s own “Ring of Steel” crams an estimated 500,000 cameras into the single square mile that encompasses the ultra-historic “City of London” in the center of town.
Still, this is a campus where cameras drape from the corners of ceilings, peer from light posts and gaze out from rooftops at a dumbfounding rate, and the jury seems to be out as to whether mass surveillance actually works to prevent crime.
“[Cameras] are really useful when IDing a subject,” Leone explained. “When we had that guy break into Anderson Hall [on Oct. 29], we got a great shot of the guy and were able to send out the footage to Philadelphia police quickly.”
While it’s nearly impossible to argue against the use of photographic evidence during a criminal investigation, gauging whether cameras actually make anyone safer is a bit tougher. In 2011, Temple’s Center for Security and Crime Science analyzed the efficacy of the 200 closed-circuit television cameras Philadelphia police added to the city in 2006, and found that the cameras had caused only a modest decrease in burglaries – .75 fewer per week – and was unable to prove that violent crime had reduced at more than an exploratory level.
Furthermore, a study of CCTV and crime prevention conducted in 2005 for the British Home Office concluded that surveillance cameras have done next-to-nothing to prevent petty crime throughout Great Britain, which spends more than 20 percent of its defense budget on surveillance. The report suggested that paying staffers to monitor surveillance systems 24/7 would work to preempt crime, but live-monitoring camera systems come with some serious civil liberty reservations. Leone said Temple does not consistently monitor its feeds in real-time, though there is the capability to do so.
So how should students feel about the swath of lenses packed into Main Campus? Yes, stockpiles of video footage can be invaluable forensics tools, and the physical presence of cameras may deter would-be purse-snatchers from purse-snatching. But, in an era where the implications of the National Security Agency’s worldwide data dragnet have yet to become clear, students shouldn’t simply accept that constant surveillance comes part-and-parcel with life in North Philly. The ACLU maintains that CCTV systems are subject to abuse by law enforcement’s “bad apples,” who may use footage to blackmail political enemies or fulfill their, um, voyeuristic tendencies.
Though it’s unclear whether all these eyeballs are necessary, the next time you make eye contact with the soulless lens of a security camera, remember that it isn’t keeping you safe as much as it’s making it easier for police to arrest you.
Jerry Iannelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jerryiannelli.