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WHEN REPORTS SURFACED IN MARCH that the National Security Agency may have eavesdropped on U.N. Security Council members in New York to determine how they intended to vote on a proposed resolution about Iraq, many diplomats were not surprised. The Washington Post reached one Security Council delegate and asked whether he believed his calls were being monitored. "Let's ask the guy who's listening to us," he replied.
His blasé response is understandable. Most U.N. diplomats live and work in one of the most heavily monitored tracts in Manhattan, the area between 14th and 59th Streets east of Lexington Avenue. More than 500 surveillance cameras, owned and operated by law enforcement agencies and various private entities, ring the U.N. campus, monitoring and sometimes recording activity on virtually every block in the vicinity. What's a diplomat hoping to arrange a discreet tête-à-tête to do?
Even if a right to privacy is implicit in the Constitution, as many argue, it doesn't safeguard our privacy in public spaces; nor do current statutory protections against electronic surveillance. In London, a city even more intensively scrutinized by closed-circuit television cameras than New York, citizens can at least retrieve copies of footage taken of them through a provision in Britain's Data Protection Act. Americans have no such legal recourse. Some might shrug off the presence of the cameras as a marginal cost of doing business in the big city or embrace the cameras as a safety measure. But for those who remain unsettled by the thought that their daily activities are being monitored, there remains little in the way of legal protection.
One extralegal solution is a project called iSee. Launched several years ago, iSee is an online interactive map of the locations of surveillance cameras in Manhattan. To use iSee, you simply open the map of Manhattan and double-click on your point of departure and your destination. After a few moments of computation, iSee generates the "path of least surveillance."
iSee can be accessed through the website of the organization which created it, the so-called Institute of Applied Autonomy. IAA is a collective of artists, engineers, and scientists who design technologies for the "burgeoning market" of "cultural insurrection." The organization presents itself as a tech-savvy civil libertarian answer to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a shadowy R&D wing of the Pentagon. DARPA has recently been in the news for developing the Terrorist Information Awareness project, headed by John Poindexter, which would monitor the everyday transactions of American citizens. Whereas DARPA uses what IAA calls "tools of repression" to take your autonomy away, IAA answers with another set of tools that are intended to give you your autonomy back.
These tools range from StreetWriter, a custom-built mechanism for spray-painting messages on the street from the bottom of a van, to Pamphleteer, "a propaganda robot which distributes subversive literature." Pamphleteer is a squat, talking robot along the lines of R2D2, but stationary. IAA's website features a video of a "field test" of Pamphleteer, in which the robot is deposited on a busy sidewalk, supplied with a stack of (presumably subversive) pamphlets. Passersby who take pamphlets are greeted by the robot with a mechanical but good-natured "Thanks for stopping by." An academic paper posted on IAA's website describes the robot and its intended uses and comes complete with an abstract and keywords, including "Contestational Robotics," "Cultural Resistance," and "Cuteness Factor." Pamphleteer is undeniably cute. In the field test, one passerby takes a subversive pamphlet, then pats the robot on the head.
Where does iSee fit in the IAA toolbox? "Let's face it," the IAA website states, "we all do things that are perfectly legal, but that we still may not want to share with the rest of the world. Kissing your lover on the street, interviewing for a new job without your current employer's knowledge, visiting a psychiatrist."
A quick test of iSee showed that some paths of least surveillance are better than others. If you want to walk north from the Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street to the diamond district, iSee recommends that you go via Broadway, a block out of the way. This will allow you to avoid the cluster of cameras that has sprouted up, perhaps to protect jewelry stores, around 56th Street and 6th Avenue.
Other routes, however, are more onerous. Say you're a U.N. delegate who lives at 43rd Street and Tudor City and works two blocks away at your delegation's office at 44th and 2nd Avenue. iSee suggests that your commute home from work take you over to 3rd Avenue, up to 49th Street, across to FDR Drive, down to 41st, and finally up to your apartment on 43rd. That's three additional long blocks and 14 additional short ones, with six of those long blocks along wind-whipped, noisy FDR drive. Hardly a gentle stroll.
WHEN I E-MAILED IAA to find out whether anyone actually uses iSee, I learned just how seriously they take the kind of anonymity their map offers. I received polite replies from an "IAA Operative," who didn't seem enthusiastic about my making any inquiries by telephone but offered to have IAA phone me. An affable man who introduced himself as "John" called me shortly thereafter. I asked if I could quote him as "John," and he told me that "John" isn't actually his name. "We either do 'IAA Operative'—we like that one a lot—or 'John Henry,' " he said. "You could use 'John Henry.' But don't call me just 'John.' "
"John Henry" told me that "iSee on its own is of limited use" but that it's "been fairly successful as a provocation—we stopped counting at the hundreds of thousands of hits." He explained that there's little evidence of individuals making systematic use of iSee in their day-to-day lives. "We definitely noticed that people were coming on and zeroing in on all the cameras in a number of places," he said, but he noted that there was no evidence that anyone was making consistent tactical use of iSee. (IAA apparently has no qualms when it comes to monitoring the way visitors use its anti-monitoring technology.)
Before I signed off with "John Henry," I asked him about IAA's motto, "Now More Than Ever." He explained that this motto was relatively new, adopted on September 12, 2001. Their old motto was "Our Shit Works," which, he explained, "was a reaction to what was going on in conceptual art at the time." In the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, this catchphrase might have seemed flippant coming from an organization that objects to technological encroachments on privacy made in the name of greater security. The new motto, on the other hand, captures the view held by IAA and many other privacy advocates that civil liberties are more vulnerable, and thus more topical, than ever. "Our shit does still work," John Henry hastened to assure me, "but we don't feel the need to shove it down people's throats."