Walking Tour of Downtown Cincinnati Surveillance Cameras

downtown Cincinnati surveillance camera

Yesterday I took part in a walking tour of surveillance camera locations in downtown Cincinnati, led by Bill Brown of the Surveillance Camera Players. Having become acquainted with Brown’s work about ten years ago, it was an honor to finally meet him and hear his first-hand perspective on surveillance technology in the contemporary city. If you’re interested, he will lead another tour in June.

downtown Cincinnati surveillance camera

Here is Brown’s map of downtown Cincinnati from 2005. If you attend the tour, you’ll receive an updated and more detailed map with 222 camera locations. The tour itself took us from the Aronoff Center to Fountain Square, an area just large enough to introduce the surveillance camera typology seen throughout downtown, and examples of cameras owned privately, by the state or federal government, Metro/SORTA, and the Cincinnati Police Department.. Brown also briefly discussed aerospace surveillance and cellphones.

In graduate school, I explored various modes of narrative and narratology, which led to a detour into surveillance as a means of narrative construction. I even conducted some of my own surveillance experiments. The technology used is scary and possibly sinister, but my interests focused primarily on perception, behavior modification and narrative extrapolation rather than on civil liberties. In any case, I did my share of reading Jeremy Bentham, Michel Foucault, the Situationists, and the Surveillance Camera Players. So, it was interesting to hear about some of these issues from another perspective with slightly different priorities [and much more in-depth knowledge].

The top photo is of a surveillance camera on private property, whose design, placement and signage make its presence known. You could argue that it functions as a deterrent, and that knowing you are watched serves as a kind of protection. The second photo is of a three-camera “streetlight” in Government Square, which is unmarked, camouflaged, and fully integrated into the streetscape. This example is much more sinister. If you do not notice it, then it neither deters criminal activity nor serves to make citizens feel protected. So, which is the better design?

If you frequent downtown and are concerned with urban life, you should do your own research into these issues and, if you can, attend Brown’s next tour. In future posts, I’ll share specific thoughts on some ways in which I think design controls behavior in various spaces, as well as some examples of subversion.


23 thoughts on “Walking Tour of Downtown Cincinnati Surveillance Cameras

  1. Electronic recording is so common now that people don’t beleive that something happened, unless it is recorded. Although CCTV cameras have been with us a long time, it has only been recently that it has become so ubiquitous.

    Too much is recorded to ever be watched.

    Have you heard of this guy Bansky?

  2. I’m familiar with Bansky but hadn’t seen that piece; nice! In principle, I find it hard to argue with anything that’s ostensibly there to protect me. On a practical level, do I feel more protected? Of course not. We’ve all indiscriminately given up a lot of privacy, and it’s hard to know or to have faith that this system actually works.

  3. I guess we only know if it works when something bad happens and the cameras aid in solving the crime. That being said, I’m assuming they are more of a mental deterrent to those deciding whether to act – kind of like preventative maintenance, which personally, I think is good for downtown (with its storied history). Though, this psychology would work better if the cameras were showcased, rather than camouflaged (as you note with the Gov Sq cams).

    Personally, as far as behavior modification is concerned, I think the differences in the change of people is trivial when comparing cameras on rooftops to cameras in heads of other people – people change when they leave the front door of their homes no matter what.

    Obviously, I’m for privacy in ‘personal’ settings, but when I’m outside (especially in this age of technology, with cameras on every phone), I don’t think twice about being ‘watched’, and I don’t really care because I never try to break or evade the law. I also know that it’s a little protection for me from getting jacked while walking down a barren street.

    I think the strong naysayers here (such as the CLU) will have a hard time living in the future, where I predict the law will be increasingly influenced not by ‘Big Brother’, but by fellow citizens with multiple forms of recording devices burning holes in their pockets.

    I really enjoyed my studies of the Situationists and Foucault as well, and I look forward to hearing Brown’s perspective on the next tour.

    Look forward to your ‘design controls behavior’ article – sounds interesting. Great post, Maya!

  4. Just to push my two examples toward their extremes, the first [overt] camera drums up fear which could serve as a deterrent, while the second [camouflaged] one seems predicated on people having bad intentions and on the need to spy on the populace, to catch us “in the act.” I don’t believe that people are evil but, if we are, then I can understand the strategy of inducing fear to deter undesirable behavior. Even if we’re not, the camera may serve as a “gentle reminder” to keep us on the straight and narrow. There’s a certain logic there that I can follow even if I don’t agree. My second example is much more insidious. I think it assumes that something bad will happen because people don’t think they’re being watched, hence the need to secretly watch.

    Actually, if you behave decently toward me, I want to believe that it’s because you’re fundamentally a decent person, not because Big Brother is watching. That makes me feel safer than surveillance could. I want to feel like there is mutual accountability among people, not fear-mongering from TPTB. The social contract necessitates a certain amount of risk and, as far as urban design is concerned, I have more faith in streetscaping that encourages diverse people to conduct themselves in diverse ways in each other’s proximity than I do in this sort of overt or covert surveillance infrastructure.

  5. Having also participated in “tour” I felt mixed about the whole experience and didn’t really come away with any conclusions about where I stand on the whole issue, but maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe it was intended to be a performance in itself.

    After thinking about it for a while I realized that having these tours in some ways disempowers the cameras. A group of people who are walking around pointing out, mapping and discussing surveillance effectively gives those behind the cameras something to think about. Something that makes them wonder what we are doing and what are intentions are. At one point, near one of the federal buildings, an officer came and stood near us to get an idea of what we were doing and I am sure that he felt a bit threatened by us talking about his job and what role the cameras play in enforcing a layer of power over public spaces.

    One of the most interesting aspects to me is the idea of private versus public. Matt raises a good point about what behavioral expectations we might have when we are “out” in public. Still, there are very few places where there is a clear distinction. Especially in denser urban areas where we don’t have privacy fences and our yards are public parks, fire escapes and sidewalks. Increasingly, the spaces that we think of as public are actually privately owned and are regulated as such. Private spaces are accessible to the public and public spaces are used for private activities. There is a lot of gray area and surveillance can effectively eliminate a lot of that.

    One of the points I took away was that cameras are an extension of the private realm into the public realm. The majority of surveillance is conducted by private interest, yet they are recording public space and public activity. I think this makes public space safer, but also more sterile and predictable.

    It is not so much the activity but the intention behind the surveillance that is disconcerting to me. One point was made during the tour that a lot of it is based on liability and insurance, but the lack of any declaration of where cameras are, who they belong to and what purpose they serve creates plenty of speculation, some of this leans towards conspiracy theory, but some is also crucial to how we perceive the power structures of urban space.

    Unlike Bill Brown I am not against cameras unconditionally. There is definitely a time and place where they are useful. But there could be a clearer understanding of what is acceptable and to what purpose they can be used and by whom.

  6. I don’t know… I think there’s a certain level of paranoia that pervades all of society, especially with increasing population (I’m probably wrong to generalize here, but the conservative view that there are prevalent problems in society which need to be hawked and recorded, and liberal accounts of wanting every kind of monkey off of society’s back, even if it doesn’t affect them personally).

    Again, this issue just doesn’t bother me, though, I respect both sides of the coin: I understand Maya’s and Mike’s perspectives (both of which are solidly argued), but specifically, I really don’t think cameras have that much behavioral control. It just doesn’t get as regulatory as people ‘acting nice’ to each other just because CPD has a camera on Ft Sq – you can assume that they won’t kill each other, but the intricacies of human behavior and minute interactions (or non-interaction) go way beyond what I think they’re really attempting to do ‘up there’, which is curb crime. Isn’t that what most of us want? And as far as cameras making public spaces more sterile/predictable, I understand the thought process, but I don’t agree with it. I think the only unpredictability that Mike might be referring to (which ‘the cameras’ would like) is what used to go down in certain parts of OTR every night, and personally, I could do without that kind of cordial interaction between fellow citizens.

    As with everything in life, there obviously must be limits with those in power, but even in tightly-knit spaces such as urban neighborhoods, the inhabitants have to concede some personal space. If you’re uncomfortable with the possibility of someone seeing you walk out the front door, or seeing you inside your apartment from afar (i.e. Rear Window), you either live in fear everyday behind blinds, or you move out to the burbs and build a 10ft fence around your property. I think it’s as simple as that.

    I just don’t see the difference from a person or a camera watching me, and I don’t care because it doesn’t control how I act or who I am as a person (as I think goes for most people). And if I do harm another person, or steal from a store, or deface someone else’s property, then I know the consequences, whether there’s a camera watching or not.

    Again, good article and viewpoints. This is what blogging was meant to be, imo. Thanks Maya.

  7. I do not to whom I am speaking, but you know me, obviously, and so you know that I can be counted on to listen to and answer your questions. I thought these remarks were unusual and require response(s).

    “After thinking about it for a while I realized that having these tours in some ways disempowers the cameras. A group of people who are walking around pointing out, mapping and discussing surveillance effectively gives those behind the cameras something to think about. Something that makes them wonder what we are doing and what are intentions are. At one point, near one of the federal buildings, an officer came and stood near us to get an idea of what we were doing and I am sure that he felt a bit threatened by us talking about his job and what role the cameras play in enforcing a layer of power over public spaces.”

    1. Yes, the tours “disempower” the cameras: they are intended to. They are also intended to empower people, the people of Cincinnati. Ohio. The power of the state has grown too large, and the power of the people has been reduced to almost nothing.

    2. Yes, the tours give the watchers “something to thing about.” The very problem with being a camera-watcher (and even with being the pilot of a remote-controlled Predator spy drone) is that it is boring, mind-numbing work, staring at TV screens for hours and hours. In a word, the watchers have little or nothing to think about, and if we are providing them with someone to think about — well, thinking is good, right? Better than sleeping at work? Better than working without thinking about at all?

    3. Yes, the watchers will wonder about our intentions. And, should they come out from their ivory towers or their hidden operations-centers, I certainly would be happy to explain mine. That’s the whole point: for the watchers to properly understand what’s happening (before they can even think of arresting someone for something), they have got to be there on the street, with us. They can’t do it from afar. Remember my point? From up close, someone can plainly see I’m exchanging two fives for a ten, giving my buddy “change”. But from a distance, the camera can only see it as a drug deal, which of course it is not.

    4. Finally, I must ask you about the image of the officer at the Federal Building, the man whom who you described as “threatened” (despite his sidearm and his continuous radio contact with armed back-up). He is threatened by a group of unarmed people?! We aren’t even demonstrators or protesters; simply politically-aware people out on a Sunday afternoon walking tour, and yet he is somehow threatened by our presence?! I doubt it; if he felt threatened, he would have made that abundantly clear to us, straight away. But he didn’t. And so I must ask you a question or two (if I may): Why are you afraid of the people you pay to protect you? Should not our guards hear what we say and join us in the on-going discussion?


  8. I agree with you Matt and it is one of the things that I kept coming back to in attempting to create a personal philosophical argument against surveillance. Crimes against people and property are illegal for a reason and, at least conceptually, they are collectively held values.

    One of the points Bill Brown seemed to make was that this just isn’t the humane way to address crime and I have to agree. Rather than having a dehumanized camera that may or may not be watching you, may or may not be identified, putting actual people who can intervene when necessary should be a priority. Of course there is some physical, financial limitations to that, but generally I agree.

    Having grown up skateboarding and writing graffiti these surveillance techniques didn’t dissuade me from acting against convention. I knew these activities were against accepted behavior and that was part of the risk and what makes these things what they are.

    That said I think that a looseness to urban space, the fact that there are spaces that aren’t defined as public or private, regulated or not, allows for possibilities that may not be illegal, but aren’t likely to happen under controlled space.

    I wouldn’t consider this a liberal position. There have been so many times that I was doing nothing illegal but was asked to leave or felt pressure to change my behavior.

    Kids aren’t supposed to play in the street, but with a shortage of adequate public open space they might play ball in the street or tag in the alley. If surveillance sees this they are likely to intervene and stop the activity because there it is a nuisance or a perceived threat.

    I think that much of this, from both sides, plays into the concept of fear that has become such a persuasive tool. We are afraid of others and situations of risk.

    I also think that the people who have gotten used to the suburban concept of privacy are the same people who are the new urban immigrants and they bring their standards of “clean and safe” to a city that undoubtedly needs some stabilization, but there is an issue of who’s values and how stabilization mediate the inherent and important differences that exist in society.

  9. Matt, what bothers me is the asymmetry of this situation. I don’t mind conceding privacy when I walk outside, to my neighbors and random passers-by. That’s mutual. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the reality or the implications of surveillance — what is being watched, why, how, by whom, and to what end.

    I’m not sure the police officer felt threatened, but I think our presence and actions were [intentionally] confusing. Bill pointed out some false appearances, and a cop on foot is closer to the reality of the situation. A cop on foot is human and engages individuals; the mechanical camera eye does not. I understood the tour as a kind of culture-jamming and, if that act forces some kind of direct confrontation, there’s an opportunity to provide an explanation. As Bill mentioned, the act can’t be properly understood from afar. Actually, if everyone found ways to always look and act in some camera-ready, superficially suspicious fashion, that would render the system moot.

  10. Bill, in response to your question, maybe threatened isn’t the right term, but exerting a presence of authority, to me feels aggressive, even if only passively so. I wouldn’t say that I am afraid, but there is a definite anxiety when an authority directs their attention towards you. Even when not doing anything wrong I ask myself, shit, what could he get me on.

    Exactly, they engage in the discussion. Maybe it is just curiosity, but then why not ask us what we are doing, standing in a large group almost blocking the right of way for buses, looking and taking pictures of security cameras in front of a federal building. He would be justified, instead by keeping a distance and remaining remote, only physically as opposed to virtually, he is contesting our position through the only means that he legally has, by implied force.

    Shouldn’t he come over and tell us the “other” side of the story? Why we should have the cameras.

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  12. I’m personally not that concerned about surveillance cameras and privacy issues when in the public realm. I’m guessing that they’re almost always like the camera at the convenience store – they only get looked at after a crime has been reported.

    With that as my starting point, I wonder if there isn’t way to use their presence as a marketing tool for downtown. See if this makes sense:
    Assumption: Downtown would be “a better place” (ambiguous, I know) if more people lived, worked, shopped, and dined there.
    Assumption: One of the deterrents to people doing those things is the perceived threat of crime.
    Assumption: More “eyes on the street” (Jane Jacobs) would deter crime.
    Assumption: Until there are enough “human eyes” (people) on the street to provide security, CPD and others attempt to meet this need through artificial ones (cameras).

    This seems to be what is going on. But I wonder if what is missing is a big marketing campaign to tell the people we want to come downtown that they ARE being watched. Perhaps a couple news stories about how these cameras have been deployed (and camoflauged) and used to solve/reduce crimes. I’m sure this would spark some additional public debate about privacy, but that would only increase the level of awareness about them.

    I guess the question is: are people willing to trade a little “privacy” (if there is such a thing in public spaces) for a more vibrant, successful downtown?

    Alternatively, would advertising the cameras be admitting defeat to those we’re trying to attract (i.e., “downtown is so scary they need security cameras”)?

  13. Hmm, I suppose that any effort to enhance transparency, explain accountability, and to humanize the situation would be welcomed by the public, although I don’t believe that more human eyes downtown would actually replace these camera eyes. Interesting line of thought, though.

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  15. Joe: I took no “offense” at Maya’s blog entry. I simply felt there were some elements of the tour that she didn’t highlight and so highlighted them in my own write-up. (Note: I always do such after-the-fact reports.) P.S. Thanks for the “CityBeat” review.

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  20. i live on 12 street,there is a camera at 12 th and republic streets.is there a link i (the public) can go to online to view that camera by streaming video=apersanist1@aol.com

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