NEW YORK — Bob Brown is a true believer, perhaps a little paranoid to some minds, but nevertheless a believer. His faith rests in the scary idea that the surveillance of New Yorkers by public and private watchers is proceeding at an Orwellian pace.
“We’re putting in place an infrastructure to track people that recalls the days of the Stasi,” he said recently, referring to East Germany’s secret police during the Cold War. The word landed jarringly amid the lilacs and cherry blossoms of Washington Square Park on a sunny spring day.
Mr. Brown, bearded and booted, kept his eyes trained on the large NYPD van that monitors the myriad of cameras — 11 by his count — within the park, not to mention the 77 cameras he claims New York University has deployed. An NYU spokesman said even if he knew he would not reveal the exact number.
A sign at the northwest entrance to the park hints at what the watchers are watching: “Drug sellers and buyers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent.”
Chess players, strollers and the occasional junkie seem impervious to the uniformed police who are as much a part of the Sunday scenery as Mr. Brown. He leads “video surveillance” walking tours throughout the city to point out the locations and capabilities of cameras in high-traffic neighborhoods such as Wall Street, Times Square and the United Nations.
The events of September 11 to the contrary, Mr. Brown is convinced that Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights against “unreasonable search and seizures” are teetering on the brink.
“Surveillance never prevents a crime. It simply gets splendid footage of it afterwards,” he told his visitors. “We have excellent footage of Mohamed Atta walking through airport security on the morning of September 11. He was very well photographed and the attack wasn’t stopped.”
The Brooklyn-born Mr. Brown has his detractors; the mayor’s office for one.
“The NYPD has shown it can be a very effective tool without impeaching on civil liberties,” said Edward Skyler, spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “Washington Square Park is no longer overrun by drug dealers.”
The use of surveillance cameras erupted into a major issue in 1998 when the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) mapped the city and concluded that there were 2,400 surveillance cameras in Manhattan alone, a number that Mr. Brown believes has tripled.
Former NYCLU head Norman Siegel said that 89 percent of the cameras were privately owned and 11 percent publicly owned.
“When I was a kid, you could stand on the corner and sing doo-wop,” Mr. Siegel said, referring to a group singing style popular in the 1950s. “Now someone is watching and he’s not from a record company but from the government.”
He believes, as does Mr. Brown, that there should be some oversight, at least public hearings, before the city installs cameras.
Arianna Martinez, a 23-year-old graduate student in international affairs at the New School, studied a map showing where the cameras are that Mr. Brown hands out to his audiences.
“In the protest-activist community there is a sense that the country, particularly New York City, is becoming very Big Brother,” she said. “I know I’ll never read about it in the New York Times so that’s why I’m here.”
Mr. Brown, 43, who wears a badge of activism that proudly boasts that his mother was a delegate for the 1972 liberal Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, is convinced that even the tours are a subject of particular interest to the watchers.
“Why?” he asked, referring to no one in particular. “First, because we are lingering. Second, because we are lingering in a circle in society dominated by squares and rectangles. And third, because I’m the only one not wearing anything related to the American flag.
“The only fee is patience,” he said to a curious passer-by, handing him a flyer. “We remain the target of choice. And therefore, the laboratory for public surveillance.”
It’s not just cameras on trees and on building entrances that bother him, but hi-tech heat-seeking helicopters, FBI “nightstalkers” flying over the city and other noiseless spy craft.
“They are watching us. The satellites, too. I’m tracking one from my bedroom window,” he told the amazed group.
His theatrical approach to civil liberties is logical once he announces he is member of the Surveillance Camera Players, a troupe that performs street theater to protest cameras in public places. They haven’t been around lately, he concedes, because the winter was so cold.