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All Eyes on Houston

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Leon casino, By DL Haydon
Photo by DL Haydon


If you want to walk around Houston without being watched, you’ll have to go out of your way.

Forget about walking around downtown; the corners have had surveillance cameras since 2010. We’re not talking about the red light cameras that got voted out in a 2010 referendum and disconnected late 2011. No, these surveillance cameras are those little black domes so secretly hidden near the green street-signs, part of a Department of Homeland Security plan to prevent terrorism. And it’s not just street corners. The METRO buses and light rail? Cameras. The parking lots you walk to and from? Cameras. The park, stadium and highways? Cameras.


In mid-2012 Men’s Health measured Houston as the second most-watched city in America, in terms of cameras anyway. We lost to D.C., but were able to beat Denver. Though Men’s Health said they got the data from local police and state transportation departments, as well as the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to calculate rates of authorized government wiretaps, there’s no telling why they cared in the first place. But you should, since you’re the one on candid camera.


Quick facts: There are at least 1,000 surveillance cameras peppered around downtown as part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiative. Houston police, NSA, FBI (and whatever other spooks and G-men not mentioned) are capable of accessing them. The authorities can also gain access to privately owned CCTV cameras in shops and businesses, which were never DHS property. If that’s not enough, the footage from the DHS cams is backed up and saved, because you just never know.


Of course, that’s just the government. Virtually everyone in Houston walks around with a camera lens and a microphone in their pocket, ready to Tweet and Vine at a moment’s notice. Google Glass isn’t culturally accepted now but another year and wearable tech won’t be a fashion faux pas; walk-around surveillance will be street level 24/7.


Wristwatches that record audio every 60 seconds. Electronic crypto-currency. Self-driving cars. Technophile government agencies. Congratulations: you’re witnessing the cyberpunk era’s juvenescence. You’re too early for ghosts in the machine and too late to enjoy being an island. We made it. The Promised Land. And we hate it here.


About half of us do, anyway. Four days after the 2013 Snowden leaks, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey and found that 56 percent of Americans were OK with the NSA spying as long as it was for counter-terrorism. Forty-one percent said, “No. Bad government. No cookie for you.”


This is probably a good time to point out the methods Pew uses to conduct its surveys: Take about a thousand people chosen at random (1,004 people over 18-years-old in this example) and call them on the phone and ask them a series of questions. Getting at least a thousand opinions reduces the margin of error, which is why Pew doesn’t waste time calling all 300 million of us.

In December, Pew asked similar questions (whether the leaks harmed public interest) and found the number of anti-Snowdens were about the same, 55 percent. A month ago Pew did another survey and found “57% of 18- to 29-year olds said the leaks have served rather than harmed the public interest — almost exact mirrors of the 65-and-over age group.” But what do kids know, right? They’re young and they’re reckless and they don’t remember Betamax, so that means their opinions are invalid by default. What would the results have been if, say, Pew interviewed 1,000 people who owned only smartphones? The results would be skewed, yes, but it’s hard to say they weren’t in the 2013 survey when the headline could have easily read “700 People with Landlines Think Government Spying is Double-Plus Good.”


And it’s not that people don’t care that the NSA, DHS and even HPD are watching. People care. People care if their affair with the neighbor gets found out, or if they get caught plagiarizing an essay or if someone they know personally snoops through text messages. That’s the nail-biting fear. Not that Joe the Plumber will be framed for domestic-terrorism. These programs and initiatives are for counter-terrorism, remember? That’s the reason why the NSA has access to those nude photos you sent to your boyfriend. It’s not as though individuals or groups will abuse power like that in order to, say, assassinate someone’s character, blackmail them and/or quell political dissent.


If the sarcasm in that last sentence went over your head, use this as an excellent example of flawed public perception.


What’s worse, people know-or at the very least think they know-they’re being watched, and they don’t really care. They tend to make better passwords and delete browsing history when assuming someone is watching, and that’s good. But people also tend to censor themselves; censor what they look at, topics they talk about and to whom they talk. That’s counter-productive for any country claiming to represent freedom. How will the next generation of kids behave if they’re told from the get-go that everything they do is monitored? Not that kids or their parents really care if the NSA connects the dots between their e-mails, phone use and credit card purchases. The idea of a car that drives itself is cool to them; they don’t think about whether someone else can turn it off. And since they’re busy gossiping about coworkers and classmates, they’ve really got nothing to hide, so there’s nothing to fear.


Not to bring up strawmen, but the whole “you have no expectation of privacy in public” is so far off the mark that it is amazing people regurgitate it in conversation. First, this isn’t only about privacy in public, this is about control. Surveillance control, which dictates how people behave (as in, they act when they’re being watched). Secondly, a world where cameras watch you, but you can’t watch back, is a world without accountability. You don’t know what official is looking at you. You don’t know his or her name. You don’t get to see the data, the storage device or the people who access it. And although a busybody citizen could write up a few Freedom Of Information Act requests, call up the local public informations officer at HPD, or hell, even stamp their feet at a City Hall meeting, this is bigger than Houston. Not exactly something to be dealt with in a case-by-case basis.


But let’s get back to the cameras downtown, that’s our piece of the pie. That’s our fight. These were installed roughly five years ago, paid for in federal funding thanks to the DHS. They cost millions of dollars. They’ve never prevented an underwear bomber (that we’re aware of), but they’ve kept their eyes out for “suspicious activity” and nabbed a petty car thief or two. Though the DHS grants and funding is drying up, according to the Houston Chronicle, 180 more cameras were planned to be installed December 2013.


So, what to do? The German anarchists who enjoy using hooks and ropes to rip the things off the damned walls are not “on to something,” and there’s little sense in spray-painting over the domes. DHS and Houston will be ever so happy to send out a repair crew, paid in full by taxes. There’s no point in yet another pointless petition. Appealing to the youth of tomorrow would be cheap (even though kids don’t need to see a world like this) and a scathing letter to your congressperson is just cliché.


Instead, do your homework. Go to anti-surveillance websites. Learn the tactics and techniques required to keep (on some small level) anonymity. Use cash instead of credit cards. Make a faraday cage to block your phone’s signal when you’re not using it. If the best you end up with is simply annoying the hell out of your circle of friends who don’t seem to care, at least this way their apathy will get punished.


On a larger scale there is hope, if recent trends are anything to go by. During the 2013 election for mayor, former city attorney Ben Hall rode an anti-crime campaign with five-point plan that included installing even more surveillance cameras around the city, with a focus on what he called “crime-ridden neighborhoods.” Mayor Parker’s standpoint that technology is not a replacement for police officers, combined with her winning the majority of votes, shows that there is still some level of concern among Houstonians. Keep those points in mind two years from now.