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The eyes have it - for now

As surveillance cameras proliferate, a band of skeptics is questioning the social impact of all this watching.

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STANDING ON A TRAFFIC island in the middle of Times Square, Bill Brown might as well be on stage.

TV cameras sweep the street to film lead-ins for news shows; security cameras protect store entrances; Web cameras focus out on the street so tourists can wave to friends and family back home via the Internet. Since the devices are often hidden or disguised, it takes several seconds for his small tour group to pick them out.

On a suspected police camera that hangs overhead, Mr. Brown slaps on a "You are being watched" sticker and defiantly reads the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause...."

Score a small and purely symbolic victory for one of the biggest underdog movements in America. Even as homeowners gleefully wire up their homes with inexpensive Web cams, even as employers put up closed-circuit TV and cities install surveillance equipment on everything from traffic intersections to school buses, a small group of skeptics is beginning to question the effects of all this technology.

Of course, after recent terrorist attacks and sniper shootings, those leading the backlash risk being drowned out by catcalls from an edgy public. On the other hand, they're tapping into deep pools of public suspicion about surveillance.

On the face of things, the new invasion of electronic eyes looks different from George Orwell's nightmare. It comes mostly from private sources, not government.

But skeptics' concern centers on fundamental social issues that sound all too Orwellian: the loss of privacy and the erosion of social trust.

They ask: Will you trust your neighbor in the 21st century? Or in putting up a security camera - just to make sure - are we somehow pulling out an essential thread of the social fabric?


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