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Watching the watchers in a camera-mad era

Students check new surveillance

NEW YORK -- Six of them could be seen peering from a chain drugstore on Broadway. One protruded awkwardly from the awning of a fast-food restaurant. A supersized, domed version hovered outside Columbia University.

All were surveillance cameras and, to the dismay of civil libertarians and with the approval of law enforcement, they have been multiplying at a dizzying rate all over Manhattan.

''As many as we find, we miss so many more," Alex Stone-Tharp, 21, said on a recent afternoon while walking the streets, clipboard in hand, counting cameras in the scorching heat.

A student at Sarah Lawrence, Stone-Tharp is among a dozen college interns who have been enlisted by the New York Civil Liberties Union to bolster its side of a debate over whether surveillance cameras wrongly encroach on privacy, or effectively combat crime and even terrorism, as in the London bombings investigation, when the cameras were used to identify the bombers.

The interns have spent the summer stalking Big Brother -- collecting data for an upcoming NYCLU report on the proliferation of cameras trained on streets, sidewalks and other public spaces.

At last count in 1998, the organization found 2,397 cameras, used by a variety of businesses and government agencies in Manhattan. This time, after canvassing less than a quarter of the borough, the interns have spotted more than 4,000.

The preliminary total ''only provides a glimpse of the magnitude," said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. ''Nobody has a clue how many there really are." But aside from the numbers, the NYCLU says it is concerned about the increasing use of newer, more powerful digital cameras that -- unlike boxy older models -- can be controlled remotely and store more images.

The group expects to publicize its findings eventually, to convince the public that the business and government cameras should be regulated to preserve privacy and to guard against abuses such as racial profiling and voyeurism.

Privacy advocates have cited a case this year, in which a police videotape that captured a suicide at a Bronx housing development later turned up on a pornographic website.

The NYCLU plans to post an interactive map on its website pinpointing the location of each surveillance camera, and it may include a feature for the camera-shy that would highlight the least-watched route between two points.

The map could be obsolete on arrival.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to spend up to $250 million to install new surveillance cameras in the city's vast subway system. The New York Police Department has requested funding for about 400 digital video cameras to help combat robberies and burglaries.

Police officers already watch live feeds from hundreds of cameras in city housing projects in the five boroughs, where ''they are a proven deterrent," said a police spokesman, Paul Browne.

New York detectives also regularly rely on private security cameras to help solve crimes. After makeshift grenades exploded outside the British Consulate in midtown Manhattan on May 5, they studied scores of videotape and concluded that a still-unidentified cyclist probably tossed the devices before fleeing.

In London, police used videotape from some of their Underground system's 6,000 cameras to help identify the suicide bombers on July 7, as well as the suspects in a failed attack on July 21.

In Chicago, officials recently spent about $5 million on a 2,000-camera system; officials say the effort has reduced crime to its lowest point in 40 years.

In Washington, Homeland Security officials have announced plans to spend $9.8 million for cameras and sensors on a rail line near the Capitol.

And in Philadelphia, where the city has increasingly relied on video surveillance, cameras caught a murder and led to the capture of a suspect.

The NYCLU's Lieberman agreed that the cameras can help solve crimes. But she says there's no proof that they deter terrorism or lesser crimes.

Susanna Groves, 19, of the University of Michigan, recalled finding herself staring up an ornate streetlight, convinced that a hidden camera was snapping pictures of her. ''I know I'm getting paranoid," she said. ''But I also know there are a lot of cameras out there."

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