Urban Surveillance

It's been a few weeks since I've posted a map, so I'm cheating and posting some excerpts and maps from my thesis in Urban Studies at Barnard College.


In the conflict and shifting interpretations of these two ways [individualism and collectivism] of defining the position of the individual within the totality is to be found the external as well as the internal history of our time. It is the function of the metropolis to make a place for the conflict and for the attempts at unification of both of these. – George Simmel{1}

This project aims to color the unfolding dialogue about privacy in cities in the era of Big Data and Big Surveillance with the words and themes raised by 102 distinct New York residents, from 21 different neighborhoods, who speak to the changing urban experience in an increasingly catalogued, surveilled, and analyzed world. It will explore Big Data and Big Surveillance as law enforcement practices to begin to illustrate what the relationship between public safety and civil liberties is for current New Yorkers, from their points of view. Ultimately, this project will provide a theoretical model for how Big Data and Big Surveillance affect urban security, urban perceptions of privacy, and urban life.

Early urbanists tried to define the city. They began by cataloging the unique aspects of a metropolis: population, size, density, and heterogeneity. Others began looking into the distinctive relationships that city-dwellers share with each other and their environments. Most recognized that there is a unique set of experiences and emotions to which only those who live in cities are exposed. Namely, in 1938 noted American sociologist Louis Wirth wrote,

Characteristically, urbanites meet one another in highly segmental roles... Whereas, therefore, the individual gains, on the one hand, a certain degree of emancipation or freedom from the personal and emotional controls of intimate groups, he loses, on the other hand, the spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society. This constitutes essentially the state of anomie or the social void to which Durkheim alludes.{2}

French sociologist, psychologist, and philosopher Emile Durkheim popularized the idea of anomie in 1897, describing it as a sensation of purposelessness and loneliness in a society that provides little structure or moral guidance.{3} Wirth elaborates on Durkheim’s notion of anomie, finding positivity in a dual effect that the metropolis has on the individual: the density, heterogeneity, and segmentation of the city produces an individual who is both liberated by their individuality apart from tight social groupings, but who is also repressed by that same anomie, isolation and disconnect.

German sociologist and philosopher George Simmel reveals a similar duality in The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903). He recalls the anomie, de-personalization, and isolation of living in a city and discusses how these characteristics of city life cause some to become over-stimulated and blasé. The cacophony of activity and people in cities creates an exhausted mentality that turns both hyper-intellectual and jaded. Conversely, the scale of the city is a challenge to the individualism of some inhabitants, and so eccentrics emerge. But he also finds that the totality of the city can compel a drive for "individual forms of personal existence," "daily growth," and "intellectual development of the individual."{4} The city is remarkable for this critical tension: it is oppressive in its size and alienating in its complexity, while also liberating in its anonymity and mobility.

This chapter opened with an excerpt from Simmel, who found that eighteenth century proliferation of social bonds in families, guilds, religious and political groups gave rise to a pursuit of radical freedom and equality of all people. In the nineteenth century, however, divisions of labor, modernization and industrialization made the individual want to break free of those same social bonds and become truly unique. He concludes, 

In the conflict and shifting interpretations of these two ways of defining the position of the individual within the totality is to be found the external as well as the internal history of our time. It is the function of the metropolis to make a place for the conflict and for the attempts at unification of both of these.{5}

He finds that the city is therefore the landscape for the struggle between equality of all and exceptionalism of the individual - individualism versus collectivism. Simmel describes this as the internal history of all people, as well as the collective struggle of humanity and the external history of our time. While Durkheim, among others like Marx, was pessimistic about how the totality of the cityscape affects the individual and predicted that totality would overwhelm and subsume individuality, Wirth and Simmel hint at an optimism that anonymity can be as freeing a force as it is oppressive, and that struggle can be as productive a force as it may be destructive.

In 1925 prominent Chicago school sociologist Robert Park expanded on Simmel’s interpretation that the role of the individual in a city is remarkable, finding: 

In a small community no individual is so obscure that his private affairs escape observation and discussion; partly because the field is smaller. In small communities there is a perfectly amazing amount of personal information afloat among the individuals who compose them... The absence of this in the city is what, in large part, makes the city what it is.{6}

Park finds that what makes the city distinct is the opportunity to escape personal information and identification, absent the prying of neighbors, which enables mobility. He defines mobility as a unique state of change and movement according to stimulation, and refers to it as “perhaps the best index of the state of metabolism of the city,” and the “pulse of the community.”{7}  He describes the city as a mosaic of separate, disparate worlds and finds that the mobility and anonymity of cities creates a sense of freedom for inhabitants, despite firm boundaries that divide neighborhoods and communities. The city simultaneously welcomes individuals and estranges them. Park’s words are ripe with excitement for the experiences that individuals undergo through this process, which include danger, experimentation without fear of judgment, intrigue, and flirtation with the unknown.

Modern urbanists elaborated that freedom, anonymity, and license for extreme individuality render the metropolis the natural landscape for experimentation, innovation, progress, and even equality. Diversity and density, as Wirth first argued, can promote tolerance, while exposure to contrasting places and ideas promotes innovation. In the contemporary work, Triumph of the City, Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser pushes this observation to its conclusion: cities are the triumph of mankind because they are sites where people engage with each other to “magnify human strengths.”{8}  He finds that cities enable face-to-face contact, which fosters collaboration and competition, making every individual and industry “smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.” He even elaborates that an innate desire to learn from one other rests at the very fibers of what it is to be human, and so cities make us more human and more democratic. In sum, in the views of urban scholars of the past and present, cities are global hubs for productivity and creativity because they are places where the individual can both collaborate with others and recede into anonymity. Freedom and mobility promote growth of the individual and productivity of industry, which counteract the otherwise overbearing sense of personal insignificance.{9}

This paper will investigate what happens when the very qualities of a city that maintain this critical and historic balance – freedom, mobility, anonymity – are threatened by new systems. Specifically, how, when Big Data and Big Surveillance as police practice challenge the historic role of cities and the lives of those within them – by chipping away at the potential for mobility and anonymity - they not only redefine social understandings of law enforcement, but they redefine urban life. 

Big Data has no single definition but refers to the vast amount of information that can be collected from every action and interaction to be stored, analyzed, and combined with other data.{10} The scope and scale of the data that is collected is valuable in its capacity to be analyzed for patterns, to understand what variables are related and can be applied to make predictions. Big Surveillance is a branch of Big Data that uses video surveillance and analysis as yet another data point for assessment. This paper will evaluate Big Surveillance by looking at the New York Police Department’s Domain Awareness System, which is a citywide CCTV integrated surveillance hub designed by Microsoft. While data analysis and video surveillance are not new law enforcement techniques, especially not in urban environments, what sets Big Data and Big Surveillance dramatically apart from their predecessors is exactly what their name suggests: their scale.

My generation has grown up in an era when civil liberties and public safety have mostly been discussed in contention, as if expanding one inherently merits a minimization of the other. This is not entirely new – every period of increased national security in American history has roused this debate. Notably, it has been incited by insidious chapters of history such as American internment of Japanese in internment camps during WWII and the malicious interrogation of suspected communists under McCarthyism in the 1950s. After all, it was U.S. data collection and surveillance projects – even inherently benevolent ones like the US census – that enabled both of these dark periods of persecution to come to fruition. However, the evolution of police dogma and practice, catalyzed by a revolution in Big Data and technology, has increased the scale and scope of public safety programs and civil liberty concerns. Most importantly, this debate has transcended its primarily national scope and currently plays out at the municipal level. Now local authorities must offer some stance on the relationship between public safety and civil liberties in their metropolitan areas.  

While these particular developments in technology and policing are new, there is a substantial body of theory and literature about surveillance, policing, urban space, and privacy that predates the modern era. These theories in fields of urban studies, psychology, planning, sociology, and anthropology will situate these systems along the trajectory of the development of police practices, technological advances, and experimental mechanisms for social control which, as Wirth points out, are especially necessary in urban environments in the absence of the social controls of village life.

French social theorist Michael Foucault of the mid-twentieth century traces the genealogy of modern approaches to social control in cities back to Jeremy Bentham, a late 18th century British philosopher and self-proclaimed social reformer. Bentham conceived of the panopticon: a prison in which inmates would be radially housed in cells surrounding a central guard post such that the inmates would never know whether or not a guard was watching. The prison operated on a psychological principle that inmates would inevitably behave according to the belief that they could be surveilled, without knowing if they were actually being watched at any given time.{11} A century later, Foucault returned to the psychology of the panopticon to expand on its practical effects on individuals, and discussed the implications of constant surveillance through the allegory of a town that is quarantined with plague. He discusses the mechanisms of how discipline evolves into a disciplinary society, and how quarantine can evolve into societal panopticism. In short, panopticism creates disciplined individuals such that external formal controls become inscribed and internalized in society at large. Foucault finds that a society under persistent surveillance is under constant investigation, but whereas Bentham’s inmates were surveilled for violating the law, Foucault’s citizens under quarantine were under critical investigation for circumstances beyond their control. He finds that, 

The ideal point of penalty today [for formalized social control] would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgment that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity.{12}

Bentham and Foucault conceived of a society that could be controlled through constant investigation and surveillance – or merely the threat of those things. This principle was eventually applied to the modern police state, in which surveillance cameras and random monitoring put civilians in a constant state of potential surveillance. The installation of cameras throughout New York signals the beginning of a period when constant surveillance is becoming more possible, and limitless investigations are feasible.

Just as Bentham and Foucault theorized that social discipline could be engineered through a controlled physical environment, social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling returned to the discussion of police system engineering to deter crime during the urban crime crisis of the 1980’s. In 1982 their article “Broken Windows” revolutionized discourse on policing by reversing conventional wisdom that crime prevention strategy should focus on deterring major crimes. Instead, they contended that the presence of minor-crimes, vandalism, socially deviant behavior and other signals that a neighborhood is in disrepair would breed major crimes, by revealing a lack of normal accountability or upkeep. In contrast, neighborhoods and cities that could project a united front against small offenses would display that someone, whether it be the police or the community, cared, and therefore major crimes would be deterred. The negligence of a “broken window” signifies vulnerability and a lack of concern, whereas informal controls like the immediate removal of graffiti or the presence of a street-walking police officer would signify concern and maintenance.{13} Wilson and Kelling thus initiated an era of experimentation with various community-policing strategies, integrating police force presence and community reporting. 

However, the notion of neighborhood policing goes back still to 1961 when Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, contending that street-level informal controls ultimately determine the safety of a neighborhood, and that it is the “eyes on the street” of neighbors, small businesses, and familiar faces that maintain a standard of normal or expected behavior among a community.{14} Jacobs, Wilson and Kelling all contend that the single most important factor for maintaining order is the presence and appearance of community care and concern, with or without a formal police presence to defend it. In sum, they identify elements of village life such as community involvement and awareness that can be drawn upon effectively to deter crime even in the densely populated and “anonymous” city.

The NYPD has experimented with various community-policing strategies for decades by creating channels for community reporting such as the 311 network, setting expectations of participation with the, “If you see something, say something” campaign, and even recently creating mobile applications that allow anyone to report what Wilson and Kelling would classify as small threats to community standards such as graffiti and litter. The Domain Awareness System has emerged from this legacy of deterring crime by maintaining standards of behavior, and on a massive scale 3000 NYPD CCTVs now maintain constant and impersonal “eyes on the street.”  

This project involves field research at 13 specific locations across Manhattan where I have identified NYPD cameras, which can be located on Figure A-1 in the appendix. These specific camera locations are particularly useful because their real time camera feeds can be accessed through the Department of Transportation website on a mobile phone, making it possible to see through the camera’s lens and take screen shots like this one:{15}

Corner of 96th and Central Park West

I stopped 102 New Yorkers of diverse backgrounds at these locations to ask them questions about their experiences with surveillance, their expectations of privacy, and their feelings about seeing themselves on camera and the future of technology-driven policing. Our conversations evolved into larger discussions of Big Data as a law enforcement tactic and the overall evolution of police practices. Despite the initial resistance of many to being stopped on the street, most interviewees quickly became engaged in the subject matter and were willing the share their thoughts for two, five, or even twenty minutes. I have included their responses throughout this work to shed light on how Big Data and Surveillance affect the experience of living in New York City, but I have changed all of their names to preserve their anonymity. A summary of my interviews can be found in the appendix, where I charted the locations and dates of interviews and summary information about those who participated. I was not able to ask every interviewee every question, and depending on their interest level some conversations were steered in more specific directions. However, by noting what key topics and themes I discussed with each person, I have been able to make some statistical conclusions about trends in the group in regards to many issues. I have also attempted to note throughout my work where interviewees were responding directly to the questions that I posed and where they personally raised a topic for discussion.

 Field research locations.

Field research locations.

A Quinnipiac poll from May 2013 asked New Yorkers if they support the increased use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and 82% (compared to 14%) responded yes. Many New Yorkers were surprised by this statistic, like Eric from Midtown who commented, “I just figured that after everything this year, all the NSA stuff, privacy issues would be more on people’s radar.” Reginald from Harlem was also surprised by the statistic, considering the public nature of NYPD incidences of profiling:

SML: Quinnipiac polled New Yorkers and 82% said they were in favor of more cameras if it combated terrorism.
Reginald: Did you talk to any black people?
SML: I only read the survey, but it says that blacks who were surveyed approved at 86%, an even higher rate.
Reginald: Oh, so did you talk to any poor black people?

I told Reginald that it would be impossible to differentiate demographic information about race and class of individuals who participated from the published report. Later on in our conversation, I asked him if he felt mass-surveillance was an improvement from stop-and-frisk and he said that in a way he believes it is an improvement because it saves young blacks and Latinos the humiliation of being stopped and frisked. But on the other hand, he expressed a sentiment that mass surveillance is simply a more covert and politically correct way of applying the same principles of profiling. Specifically, he said “Just because you put it all over the city, doesn’t mean everyone feels the same way about it. Also, you know they’re not looking at the people on Park Avenue the way they’re looking at FDB [Frederick Douglas Boulevard]. There they’re looking a lot more closely.”

Reginald expressed what the Domain Awareness System guidelines have cautiously avoided: that the use of surveillance cameras may very well differ from location to location. For example, Times Square cameras may be uniquely intended for counter-terrorism purposes, but the terror threat in Harlem is much less significant, and so it is likely that those CCTV’s will be used for different purposes on different people. When conducting field research on 96th Street and Central Park West, several people expressed a similar feeling, such as Alexandra. When I introduced the Domain Awareness System as a mass-surveillance counter-terrorism program, and directed her attention to a camera above us, she said, “I’m pretty sure if there’s a terror threat in New York, it’s not here. You can’t seriously believe that wealthy grandmas are going to be the targets of this decade’s great political attacks.” The NYPD has thus far avoided discussing the obvious fact that while some neighborhoods will be surveilled to prevent terrorism, others will be scrutinized strictly and may be subject to religious, racial, and other discriminatory targeting for general law enforcement purposes.

Finally, I asked Lucas, the seventeen year old was profiled, stopped and frisked in 2012, what would change about his behavior if he expected surveillance in the places he hangs out. He said, “Well, I got stopped [and frisked] because it was dark out and I was with a whole big group of my friends on the corner of my block just hanging out and joking around. You know, if that makes me look suspicious to a cop I guess I’m just supposed stay inside all day or something.” (He then laughed and said, “To be honest, there’s gotta [sic] actually be something suspicious about a teenage boy who spends all his time inside.”) Whether or not surveillance would actually change Lucas’ behavior, it changes his perception of freedom to congregate with his friends and not be profiled for his age, race, or neighborhood. Moreover, for Lucas the experience of surveillance transforms an innocuous social gathering into a suspicious one, and makes him fear that he will again be subjected to extra scrutiny and targeting based on his identity.

The same Quinnipiac poll from May 2013, which asked New Yorkers if they support the increased use of surveillance cameras in public spaces, found that 82% (compared to 14%) responded yes, with 86% support among black voters and 88% among Hispanic voters. Additionally it found that, “Women support more cameras 86 – 11 percent, compared to 78 – 19 percent for men. There is very little partisan gap as Democrats support cameras 85 – 12 percent, while Republicans support them 86 – 13 percent, with 78 – 18 percent support among independent voters.”{102}

I was surprised by the high approval ratings, considering all of the media I had encountered that was critical of NYPD surveillance tactics, and so I adopted a line of questioning to determine what specific aspects of surveillance make New Yorkers feel more or less safe. For example, the Quinnipiac poll asked “Do you support the increased use of surveillance cameras in public places?,” but this question was number 34, and followed a long string of questions including, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Michael Bloomberg is handling terrorism?”,” Do you think the NYPD has been effective in combating terrorism or don’t you think so?” and, “How worried are you about another terrorist attack in New York City?” The string of questions was terrorism-focused, causing me to suspect that New Yorkers were responding to the increased use of surveillance cameras for counter-terrorism purposes. I therefore focused a line of questioning on eliciting how New Yorkers feel about increased surveillance cameras for regular law enforcement purposes. Some New Yorkers were unaffected by the nuance in the question:

SML: So you would generally be in favor of more NYPD cameras to deter and prevent terrorist attacks?
Meredith: Absolutely. Or even catch terrorists after the fact – like they did with the Boston Marathon bombers. That was incredible, just like that, there were their faces.
SML: Shifting gears, would you generally be in favor or not of more NYPD cameras for law enforcement purposes on a daily basis?
Meredith: Like traffic cameras?
SML: Any type of cameras, for preventing or investigating any type of crime.
Meredith: Well sure. What’s the difference? I just want to be safe from any type of threat.

But others expressed a clear distinction in feelings between surveillance used to counter-terrorism and surveillance used for daily law enforcement purposes.

SML: Would you generally be in favor of more or less NYPD cameras to deter and prevent terrorist attacks?
Ron: More I guess, just because. I don’t really fear a terrorist attack though.
SML: So would you generally be in favor or not of more NYPD cameras for law enforcement purposes on a daily basis?
Ron: Probably not. It’s one of those things, I don’t know. It seems excessive.
SML: What’s different about it? From counterterrorism?
Ron: Well... I guess for starters I don’t like the police looking into private citizens. If you’re being looked at because there’s suspicion you’re involved with terrorists, there’s a reason. There’s some link. If I ever gave the police or whoever a reason to suspect I was hanging out with terrorists, they should feel free to follow me. But until that day, they just have no business, knowing my business.

In sum, by only asking New Yorkers how they feel about surveillance and by not acknowledging the intention and use of video collection, the Quinnipiac poll disregarded important nuances in how New Yorkers feel about video surveillance. 75% of people I was able to ask, “Are you in favor or not in favor of police surveillance in Manhattan?” were generally in favor of more surveillance (Out of 81 people asked, 63 were in favor), which is consistent with Quinnipiac’s findings. However, when I differentiated between surveillance for counterterrorism purposes and law enforcement purposes, 78% approved of surveillance for counter-terrorism (63 out of 81), while only 35% (28 out of 81) approved of increased surveillance for general law enforcement.

Additionally, while the Quinnipiac poll asked about ubiquitous surveillance, it did not ask New Yorkers who were presently experiencing surveillance. In my interviews I made a point of directing the subject’s attention to nearby NYPD cameras. The Department of Transportation (DOT) makes the footage from many of their traffic cameras publically accessible online and on a mobile, making it possible to capture screenshots of yourself on camera at certain locations.

A map of places in Manhattan where respondents have more favorable reactions to NYPD surveillance.

In general, my interviewees responded more favorably to seeing themselves through the camera lens at Central Park West and 96th Street (Location 4 on Figure 5), Brooklyn Bridge and Center Street (Location 12), Lexington and 34th (Location 8), 7th Avenue and 57th Street (Location 7), and West Street and Canal Street (Location 9), see Figure 5: Field Research Locations and General Reactions to Surveillance. The most negative reactions I received were at Amsterdam and 86th Street (Location 5), Fort Washington and 178th Street (Location 1), and Lenox Ave and 135th Street (Location 3), and Pearl Street and Dover Street (Location 13). It is possible that interviewees responded more favorably at the above locations because, in general, they are further downtown and generally receive a lot of foot and vehicle traffic. In particular, the Brooklyn Bridge receives plenty of tourism traffic and Canal Street is bustling at most times of day and night. For these reasons, it is possible that New Yorkers expect more surveillance and less privacy in such places.

The locations where I received negative reactions are generally further uptown and receive less foot traffic, according my observations. Typically, places where New Yorkers responded more favorably are also more commercial and affluent regions, whereas locations where New Yorkers responded less favorably are more residential and less affluent. From these observations, I hypothesize that New Yorkers are more comfortable with surveillance in more heavily trafficked, affluent, and commercial areas. Conversely, they may be less comfortable with surveillance in locations that are less affluent, less busy, and more residential. These findings further reinforce my observation that New Yorkers are more comfortable with surveillance when used for counter-terrorism purposes, in large and public areas, than they are with surveillance used for general law-enforcement, in less trafficked and more residential areas.

Additionally, while my interviews did not reveal any noticeable difference in how men and women react to surveillance, each gender had specific, different concerns. For example, Pat was one of four women who referenced voyeurism, and no men raised this concern. Additionally, Jared was one of seven men (and one woman) who referenced video security as a concern. I was not able to discern any age-related trends in how New Yorkers feel about surveillance, but interestingly, all five New Yorkers who I spoke to who had children with them (two mothers with children, one father was a child, and one couple) spoke favorably of increased surveillance in their neighborhoods. And finally, as discussed earlier, Reginald, Lucas, and four others referenced their fear of being profiled through surveillance cameras for the skin color.

This project began with an exploration of how the classical urbanists defined and described the unique conditions of urban life. German sociologist George Simmel described a duplicity in the effect that the city has on the individual in the struggle between collectivism and individualism, and compared this internal mental struggle of all people with the external political struggles of society.{117} Chicago School sociologist Louis Wirth identified a similar duality that emerges from being an individual in a totalizing structure, which can create a profound sense of both freedom and alienation for the individual in a city.{118} Urban sociologist Robert Park found an integral component of cities to be the ability of individuals to escape intrusion into their private information and affairs, in contrast to gossip and news circulation in small communities.{119} More modern urbanists like Edward Gleaser and Jane Jacobs also identified these critical elements: freedom, struggle, anonymity, and license for the pursuit of extreme individuality, and found that these factors make the city the perfect landscape for experimentation, innovation, and progress. In sum, cities allow both the individual and the collective to thrive because their unique freedom, mobility, and anonymity empower the individual within an otherwise oppressive and discouraging structure.

It seemed to me that many of these beneficial qualities of a city are endangered by technological law enforcement systems that erode privacy. Big Data, the analysis of ever amassing data to find patterns and make predictions, and Big Surveillance, the ubiquitous collection of video footage, encroach on the freedom most city dwellers have historically enjoyed to escape the sort of reputation that develops in a small community. While the classical urbanists also recognized that formal policing was necessary in cities, without the informal social controls of small town life, they surely could not have foreseen the technological developments that have enabled the newest wave of information-based policing systems. An investigative approach that combined ethnography and legal analysis was particularly useful for approaching this problem, by allowing me to identify how New Yorkers feel about these systems and then situating their reactions with the legal rights and protections afforded to them.

My interviews with New Yorkers revealed not only practical fears of abuse from new law enforcement technologies but also deeper concerns of how the experience of being an individual living in the city has changed. My conversations about Big Data raised concerns about using this practice for predictive policing, in which individuals can be penalized by law enforcement agencies for being statistically likely to commit a crime. These conversations also picked up on themes of potential de-anonymization of private and personally identifiable information, in addition to the potential insecurity of data from hackers or other untrustworthy users. Concerns of what information can truly stay private and not personably identifiable given sophisticated technology, were magnified by the potential for data sets to be combined and compared to release even more identifiable information. But from these practical concerns emerged the more overwhelming theme of a fear of loss of personal control over an individual’s identity and representation, as well as a sense of loss of autonomy when predictive correlations are increasingly used to explain the world and human behaviors. The expansion of Personally Identifiable Information makes New Yorkers not only feel that their privacy has been eroded but also that their mobility, control over their identities, and capacity for reinvention has been stifled. The elimination of a social and legal presumption of innocence for individuals, who are now hyper-profiled through data and face perpetual scrutiny from law enforcement, undermines Simmel’s “individual forms of personal existence” that are supposed to empower the individual in the metropolis.

The classical urbanists found that while the city can be oppressive in its size and lack of social organization, it can also be liberating for the individual though mobility, anonymity, and a subsequent license for creativity and productivity. However, my interviews demonstrate that many of those critical outlets for the individual to thrive within an otherwise totalizing and isolating environment – freedom, mobility, anonymity, individual forms of personal existence - are jeopardized by intrusive and depersonalizing technology-based law enforcement systems. Unfortunately, on top of this, my legal analysis of privacy and digital information protections reveals a decade long trend in the erosion of protections for individuals, with greater protections and access to databases for governments, companies, and especially national defense organizations.

My interviews about the Domain Awareness System, as a case study of Big Surveillance, revealed that despite the Quinnipiac Poll’s findings that New Yorkers approve of increased surveillance, they experience fear, anxiety and concerns about security when discussing surveillance, and these fears are amplified when they are provided with evidence of themselves being surveilled. While the Quinnipiac Poll attempted to gauge public opinion about surveillance, it failed to differentiate between surveillance for counter-terrorism purposes and surveillance for general law enforcement purposes, and therefore did not adequately reflect how these systems are in fact being used. The most telling aspect of my interviews was how New Yorkers responded to me showing them an image of themselves on camera, to which most responded with a combination of anger, fear and confusion.

These conversations about Big Surveillance subsequently raised themes of voyeurism, particularly from women who fear that detached surveillance enables a monitor to abuse the system for personal purposes. Concerns of religious and racial profiling were abundant in these interviews, and many referred to a history of NYPD discriminatory targeting as a testament to this. These conversations repeatedly touched on the consistently expanding authority and militarization of the NYPD, and many interviewees elaborated on how some of these concerns actually make them feel less safe. And, as illustrated by Lucas, a 17 year old who was stopped and frisked in 2011, the experience of surveillance sometimes translates benign activities into suspicious incidents, undermining the light-heartedness of an innocuous social gathering among neighbors. The experience of detached surveillance, without loophole-free mechanisms for accountability, will have dramatic consequences on how New Yorkers feel and act in public. These conversations illustrated that while technology-based law enforcement practices such as Big Data and Big Surveillance are recent developments, they are present in the minds of New Yorkers and represent a real and growing encroachment on the private lives on urban dwellers.

This project also began with some discussion of the panopticon, a creation of philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. His panopticon plan detailed a socially engineered prison in which inmates were subjected to the perpetual possibility of surveillance. Prisoners could only guess at whether or not a guard would be watching their actions at any given time, just as New Yorkers know that Domain Awareness System cameras are constantly recording, and can only guess who is behind the screen, or if there is anyone monitoring them at all. Philosopher and sociologist Michael Foucault later called Bentham’s creation “an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end,” knowing not only that being subjected to constant analysis and scrutiny will reform and repress the inmates, but even the possibility of someone constantly monitoring them achieves the same effect.{120} Most importantly, the scrutiny never ends because “the ruthless curiosity of an examination” in Bentham’s institution affords no expectation of privacy and no presumption of innocence to individuals.{121} Foucault recognized that Bentham had not only conceived of a building but rather an entire society that would be surveilled and controlled according to the same principles. To Foucault, the individual is forced to internalize discipline when under constant gaze and supervision, to the effect of producing a sovereign “carceral system.”

Persistent investigation through Big Data and Big Surveillance, like Bentham’s panopticon, affords no one a presumption of innocence, and treats all individuals as if some reasonable suspicion has already been identified. Whereas Jane Jacobs recognized that the “eyes on the street” of urban community members would protect their neighbors from suspicious outsiders and potential harm, the “eyes on the street” of the Domain Awareness System treats every New Yorker as a potentially harmful outsider.{122} Ubiquitous detached surveillance therefore differs dramatically from Jacobs’ community policing model, and New York City neighborhoods have gradually made this technological transition from an “urban village” model of public safety, to a carceral model. Weak legal protections, especially in light of normalized access to video footage and incidental use clauses in the Domain Awareness System Guidelines, may cause many of the fears raised in these interviews to materialize quickly, ultimately resulting in what Foucault describes as “societal Panopticism” in a “carceral system.”

It is difficult to imagine what the solution to such a multi-faceted problem may be at the federal level, but this case study of Big Data and Big Surveillance as law enforcement praxis in New York City shows one clear area in which local privacy protections can and should be improved. Privacy should not be traded for efficiency, and big data analysis should not be substituted for visible, street-walking police officers who develop what Mike Davis refers to as folk knowledge. New Yorkers should not feel alienated by their law enforcement systems, nor threatened or limited by the scope of information collected about them. Urbanists, past and present, have found that that freedom, anonymity, and license for extreme individuality render the metropolis the natural landscape for experimentation, innovation, progress, and even equality. Other sociologists have found that totalizing systems and depersonalizing infrastructure, like Big Data and Big Surveillance in New York City, threaten these same urban goods. While these competing futures of the metropolis will continue to play out, New York City in particular should strive to remain a global hub of innovation and freedom, by favoring the civil liberties of its own residents. Ultimately, these practices should be reevaluated so that New York City can set the precedent that urban privacy and public safety need not only be discussed in contention.

{1} George Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," in The Blackwell City Reader, edited by Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 18.
{2} Louis Wirth, “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” The American Journal of Sociology, 44 No. 1 (1938): {3} Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. (The Free Press, 1951), 5 & 213.
{4} Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," 18.
{5} Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," 19.
{6} Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKensie The City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925), 39.
{7} Park, Burgess, and McKenzie, The City, 59.
{8} Edward Glaeser, Triumph of The City, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 249.
{9} Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist who spent years quantifying these observations about cities has remarked, “You can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.” Moreover, “What the data clearly shows, and what [Jane Jacobs] was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.” Jonah Lehrer, “A Physicist Solves the City,” The New York Times December 17, 2010. 
{10} For a discussion on who coined the term Big Data, see Steve Lohr, “The Origins of ‘Big Data’: An Etymological Detective Story,” The New York Times The Business of Technology (Bits) Blog, February 1, 2013.
{11} Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings, Ed. by Miran Bozovic (London: Verso, 1995), 29-95.
{12} Michael Foucault, “The Eye of Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, ed. C. Gordon. (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1980), 14.
{13} James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety," Atlantic Monthly, March 1982.
{14} Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (New York: Vintage Books, 1961). 
{15} New York City Department of Transportation.
{102} Quinnipiac, "Quinnipiac University Poll: New York City Voters Smile For the Security Cameras." (May 23, 2013). Accessed on February 5, 2014. 
{117} Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," 18.
{118} Louis Wirth, “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” 13.
{119} Park, Burgess, and McKenzie, The City, 59.
{120} Foucault, The Eye of Power, 14.
{121} Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings, 29-95.
{122} Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.