The Observing Surveillance Project documents the presence of video cameras placed in Washington DC after September 11. The project was undertaken by the staff of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, DC. Many of the images displayed in the exhibit may be viewed online at

Who Watches the Watchers?
Historians debate the true meaning of Juvenal’s maxim, “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” The Roman satirist often poked fun at the ruling elite. According to one commentator, Juvenal’s guardians were the eunuchs left with the women of Rome while the men traveled beyond the city. Perhaps there is no need to guard such guardians.
        But in the modern era, the words are a call for greater transparency and greater accountability of those in power. Leading economists ask who will watch the regulators of financial markets. Human rights groups ask who will police the police. Commentators on technology ask who will observe those who have the means to observe others.
The eighteenth century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham described the perfect prison as the “panopticon,” a place where prisoners could be under constant surveillance. The Panopticon placed prisoner cells around a central observation tower. From the tower, prisoners could be observed but could not see who was watching. Bentham was impressed that the threat of surveillance would be enough to coerce the inmates such that actual observation would no longer be necessary.
        Modern social philosophers from Michel Foucault and Irving Goffman to Oscar Gandy and Gary Marx have noted that observation plays a similar function as a means of social control. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault wrote, “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmates a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Surveillance thus becomes a means of social and political control. It is a way for those in power not only to observe, but also to control.
Privacy and Public Places
Central to the debate about video cameras is the question of whether one has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. Proponents of the camera systems say that if you can be observed by others you have no expectation of privacy. But such a view ignores the role that technology plays in enhancing observation.
        One person can easily obtain privacy against another by turning away or by speaking softly. But how do people obtain privacy against technology that seeks to observe and to record all? And what if such technology is eventually designed to target those who desire privacy?
        More than a century ago, Louis Brandeis said that the law must evolve to safeguard individuals from the encroachments of modern technology that made surveillance easy and inexpensive. The Brandeis article, credited for the modern right of privacy, concerned observation in a public space.
The Debate in Washington DC
The Mayor of Washington, DC Anthony A. Williams has argued that increased government surveillance is a reality after September 11. He has argued for the adoption of elaborate camera systems, similar to those now in place in London and Sydney, Australia.
        The DC City Council has resisted the Mayor’s proposal. Council members and witnesses raised questions about the video camera system at a public hearing in June 2002. Residents asked whether their front doors and windows would fall within view of the police camera networks. Legislation is currently under consideration that would limit the use of the video camera system. The United States Congress has also questioned the unregulated use of video surveillance in Washington, DC.
Transparency and Open Government
The work of the Observing Surveillance project has been undertaken in cooperation with the Freedom of Information Act litigation pursued by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. EPIC has filed a series of FOIA requests with the Metropolitan Police Department and the Park Police to determine the scope and operation of the DC video surveillance systems. Material obtained from the litigation is incorporated in the Observing Surveillance exhibit.
Public Protest and Constitutional Freedom
Washington has long been the center of political expression in the United States. Martin Luther King delivered the I Have a Dream Speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Over the last thirty years, millions of Americans from all across the country have come to the nation’s capital to express their views on important political matters.
        Documents obtained by EPIC under the FOIA indicate that in the last few years the Metropolitan Police Department used video surveillance from helicopters to monitor political demonstrations in Washington, DC.


        The goal of the Observing Surveillance project is to promote public debate about the presence of video cameras in Washington, DC. Many systems of surveillance arrive quietly. A video surveillance system in the capital of the United States requires public debate. A second goal of the project is to explore the use of media to promote public dialogue. Most policy debate is based on text. The prevailing paradigm is the argument. It appears in legal briefs, congressional testimony, and policy papers. But most people do not read briefs, testimony, or policy papers. They view images.

Prologue: The Role of Idioms and Icons in Advocacy
Earlier projects undertaken by the staff of EPIC have made use of a wide range of political images and idioms. Mouse pads titled "Clipper 2.1," designed with the assistance of Phil Zimmerman, helped launch a campaign against a government effort to regulate encryption. Stickers labeled "Suitable for government surveillance" placed on hotel telephones drew attention to FBI surveillance proposals at a conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy. Buttons with the slogan "Privacy is a RIGHT not a PREFERENCE" helped shape the public debate over self-regulation. Bumper stickers that proclaimed " the site for news, information, and action" announced the arrival of a new privacy advocacy website. The challenge in the digital world is to find idioms and icons that are familiar and accessible.

The Travel Postcard
One of the first new forms of inexpensive media in the twentieth century was the travel postcard. All across America and Europe travelers would purchase penny postcards with colorful images to send to friends and relatives back home. The postcards captured images of monuments and parks, beaches and famous hotels.
        The Observing Surveillance project adapted the metaphor of the travel postcard. The first image published was of two American flags against a cloudy sky with a half-dome, lampost-shaped video camera in the foreground. The font was selected to mimic a classic travel card -- bold italics proclaim "Washington, DC." The title across the top "Observing Surveillance."
        Subsequent cards incorporated the custom of a caption on the obverse of the card to identify location. For Observing Surveillance, the location is the position of the video surveillance cameras depicted on the card. The choice of cameras is not accidental. Several may be found in front of FBI headquarters and the US Department of Justice.
        The montage is a popular way to capture several images on a single card. Observing Surveillance parodied the montage of Washington with a series of images showing several surveillance cameras.

The Tourist Map
Washington is one of the most popular tourist locations in the world. The Washington tourist bureau provides colorful maps for visitors to locate museums, metro stops, and other sites. The Observing Surveillance project modified a Washington tourist bureau map to indicate the location of video surveillance cameras. Tourists can then decide whether to visit or to avoid these new Washington landmarks.
The Pop-up Window
For users of the Internet, the pop-up window is a genuine annoyance. It obscures the primary image screen and breaks the simple point and click routine of Internet surfing. One major Internet Service Provider that offered to block pop-ads is currently running a campaign with pop-up ads with the simple claim "Get rid of this advertising!"
        Observing Surveillance embraced the pop-up ad to promote public participation in the DC City Council hearing on video surveillance. The goal is clear -- focus the user’s attention on the statement and encourage a response. Protest has always had this character.
The Vacation Album
Apple computer has released a new software program iPhoto that makes possible the production of handsome, "linen-bound" photo albums. The Apple advertising promotes the use of the the program to record vacation memories. The images feature young children splashing in the water at the beach, the parents smiling close by.
        But the technology that makes possible the transfer of digital images to vacation albums also makes possible digital documentaries. Text can be joined with photographs. Monochrome substituted for color. Citations incorporated.

Digital Documentary
The Observing Surveillance project demonstrates visually the impact of surveillance. Images of liberty, freedom, and travel are juxtaposed with images of surveillance and control. The images of surveillance cameras suggest also the construction of a Panopticon in the nation’s capital. Observing Surveillance attempts to communicate ideas through images. Watch the watchers. The battle over control of the technology of observation has just begun.
Support for this work has been made possible by a grant from the Culture, Media and Education program of the Ford Foundation.