Smile, cameras watch you almost everywhere

Question: I read that during President Bush’s recent inauguration security officials in Washington, D.C., relied on a network of cameras to watch the crowd. Is this true? Is this a growing trend in other cities, too?

— PB, Chicago, Ill.

Answer: Many dignitaries and politicians attended President Bush’s second swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps. Another figure was also present, but not seen — Big Brother.

In recent years, a significant number of surveillance cameras have been placed throughout the nation’s capital. Many are hidden so as to be virtually undetected to the average person in the street.

Authorities in Washington have developed a sophisticated network linking existing surveillance cameras with the hundreds of new cameras. The images feed into a single command center that oversees the entire Capitol.

Welcome to life in the 21st century. The network of surveillance cameras in D.C. may be the most extensive in the United States, but it is by no means a unique system.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere without a camera able to film you.

Ever been to New York City to see a Broadway show? Don’t be surprised to be caught on one of the more than 300 surveillance cameras located within a six-block radius of Times Square.

The use of cameras in this country is light-years behind many countries. In London, for example, the British government has installed approximately 1.5 million surveillance cameras in public places in response to terrorist bombings. Today, the typical Londoner is photographed, on average, 300 times a day.

Without question, the surge in surveillance cameras results in a loss of privacy as you enjoy life. According to law enforcement agencies, the cameras reduce crime and, as a result, we should have a more limited expectation of privacy in public.

Wondering whether you smile for the candid cameras?

You should also be aware of another type of surveillance camera — known as red-light cameras — that will make you frown. These are placed at busy intersections to catch drivers who run red lights. Typically, they are mounted on a post, with a lens pointed at a car’s license plate.

Red-light cameras are used in more than 100 U.S. cities. Hundreds of thousands of drivers receive tickets annually as a result of photos taken by these cameras. The tickets can routinely be $75, and run as high as $350, so you might want to be on the lookout for these devices.

Studies indicate that these cameras have reduced the number of violations for running red lights. In addition, they have brought substantial revenue for municipalities. On the other hand, some studies indicate the cameras have resulted in a high number of rear-end accidents, and some local governments have removed them because of technical problems and legalities.

But you can turn the tables on Big Brother, too. Some drivers have resorted to using sprays and shields that blur one’s license plate when photographed, although many states outlaw such actions.

Other drivers contest their tickets, and some have won dismissals for several reasons, including camera locations chosen for high-traffic volume rather than safety, or claims that the locations have shorter-than-normal yellow times.

Other drivers get back by sharing information about the location of such devices.

A Web site — — even contains a database of the location of thousands of red-light cameras in the United States, along with the penalty likely to be imposed.

Nevertheless, as these surveillance cameras proliferate, remember that you can only grin and bear it.

• Eric Gertler is the author of Prying Eyes: How to Protect Your Privacy from People Who Sell to You, Snoop on You, and Steal from You. Submit questions to

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