Watch Me Do My Thing: Surveillance in New Orleans

Several years ago I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon of Mardi Gras on a Bourbon Street balcony. It’s no business of mine how others choose to pass their Mardi Gras, but the crowd below didn’t look happy. They looked frantic and uneasy. They were waiting, waiting—they’d come here, they’d gotten drunk; where was their fun? Suddenly, bellows and shouts would erupt, even louder than the ambient tumult, and a swath of the crowd would swivel into concentricity, ranks of phones and high-end cameras centered on some tiny scrap of exposed, be-nippled skin.

From above, it was like watching a sea anemone pucker closed around a fish. Once that morsel of sexual nutrition was gone, the crowd would ripple back into a lumpy carpet and mill aimlessly again, their slack, sweating faces uncertain, here and there listlessly waving their cameras above-head like antennae, waiting to be provided another thrill.

Spectator is a limiting role: where there is a spectator, there must be a performer. What makes so many things fun—dance parties, street parades—is participation, the way we come together and create fun together. Whether handheld or mounted, the camera creates a binary between viewer and viewed where none previously existed. Rather than all being participants in a shared experience, we become either the person recording or the person being recorded.

art by Ben Passmore

A friend participated in a spontaneous orgy at a party last year. She recalled how the party’s host, although thrilled at the happening, couldn’t join in the fun; he was kept busy making sure other party-goers weren’t trying to surreptitiously record it with their phones. “I just remember hearing him barking ‘No phones!’ over and over again at people. ‘No phones! Give me that! No phones!’ The whole time we were getting it on, he had a full-time job just trying to guard us from being taped.”


Dance Like Someone Is Watching

If, as a prominent post-K hagiographer has said, New Orleans is a city of moments, what happens when an apparatus of documentation sprouts around those moments? Video-recorded, the idealized, ephemeral moment becomes something permanent and concrete, a visual commodity that can be bought, sold, passed around, duplicated and used as evidence by anyone with access to it.

When we know or think we’re being watched, we behave differently. Those who seek social control have relied on this for centuries. The panopticon, a concept usually associated with the French thinker Foucault, was invented by a utilitarian named Jeremy Bentham in the late 1800s as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” In a nutshell, Bentham proposed a prison—or a factory, or a hospital, or a school—be built as a hollow circle, stacked rings of cells all facing inwards towards a central watchtower.

While the cells would be lit day and night, the watchtower would be screened or opaque. As an inmate of the panopticon, you’d have no way of knowing when or if the guards in the watchtower were observing you. This uncertainty would, Bentham believed, lead you to behave at all times as if you were being watched by guards. The panopticon would be extremely efficient: few actual guards were needed in the tower, since those surveilled would internalize the fear of being observed and regulate themselves.

But why hire any guards at all? Why pay humans? In an era which has seen cashiers replaced by check-out computers, editors replaced by aggregation software and traffic cops replaced by red-light cameras, the watchtower of the panopticon has been replaced by the lidless, sleepless eye of the surveillance camera.


Conventions of the Genre

Underappreciated within the New Orleans film scene is a subgenre I call Marigny Surveillance Theater, a species of short film that combines low budget and high dudgeon. Generally shot in grainy black-and-white and posted to YouTube, these snippets of security footage are captioned with all-caps excoriations of the “thugs” whose transgressions they document, with exclamation points applied liberally as sprinkles on a sundae of delicious homeowner outrage.




Watching these—my favorites include a big lady on a Rascal scooter who purloins potted plants—one becomes conditioned to the genre’s tropes: for a while, perhaps a minute or two, there is nothing but the flickering grain of the camera. Then a human, usually at a crazily extreme top-down angle, comes into view. Is this the perpetrator? No! He walks on, disappearing through the corner of the video frame. But wait—he returns, this time struggling under a plastic bin of ill-gotten impatiens! And then he’s gone again… but the thrill of his disobedience, the tiny jolt of scandal that is the genre’s money shot, has been delivered.

When you see someone on surveillance footage, you expect them to misbehave; it’s a convention of the genre. In video, as in any medium, countless tiny details of quality and production value precondition our judgment. When you see footage of two people in conversation, whether the badge in that video’s corner says RT, BBC, TMZ or Brazzers will powerfully shape not only your expectations of what you will see but your assumptions about who those people are. In the language of surveillance, the subject of the surveillance is implicitly suspicious—why else would they be on a surveillance tape? The person watching the tape, the viewer, is implicitly threatened—why else would they be surveilling?

Surveillance, a system born of fear and mistrust, itself reinforces paranoia. Complex networks of components created for a purpose are never value-neutral: they reflect the worldviews of their creators, and when we use those tools, we recreate that worldview in ourselves. If this sounds like jibber-jabber, consider the law: even lawyers who are critical of the law must learn to think within the law’s strictures and according to its logic to be successful at fighting it. Or take Facebook, creation of an alienated creep: when we use it we inevitably find ourselves feeling alienated and practicing creepy behavior.

If you’re outside on your stoop and two unfamiliar teenagers walk past your gaudily-painted converted double, you can exchange greetings with them. By contrast, when you’re huddled indoors, watching those same teenagers through the ominous glow of your surveillance tapes, they do not smile, they do not wave or give an acknowledging nod. As they walk, they see only the flat barriers of your shutters and closed door; you see only two suspicious characters skulking down the street. Your heartbeat accelerates. You wonder if these kids are connected with the bicycle disappearing from your side yard last week.


art by Ben PassmoreDomestic Deterrence

The argument that security cameras deter crime relies on the psychology of the panopticon. Whether all of us living in a permanent paranoid fog of second-guessing self-regulation sounds to you like existential hell or a recipe for civic improvement, the assumption is that people will behave not just differently but better if they think they’re being observed.

A 2012 study by Daniel Nettle, Kenneth Nott and Melissa Bateson conducted at Newcastle University showed a 62% decrease in bike theft at bike racks where the study’s organizers posted signs bearing a pair of stern, staring eyes and the words “Cycle Thieves, We Are Watching You.”

The study’s authors conclude from this, “There can be considerable crime-reduction benefits to engaging the psychology of surveillance, even in the absence of surveillance itself.” However, that 62% theft decrease in the racks overseen by the T.J. Eckleburg billboards corresponded with a 65% increase in bicycle thefts at the University’s sign-lacking “control locations,” suggesting that the psychology of surveillance only shifts “crime” to places that are perceived as less surveilled—which in New Orleans means poorer neighborhoods.

The former head of security for a Fortune 500 company I spoke to scoffed at the notion that surveillance provided deterrence. “Cameras don’t prevent shit,” he said. “Nobody gets them except as a reaction to something that’s already happened, and I’ve never heard of someone stopping a crime because they saw it happening live on camera. The only use for security cameras is to punish someone after the fact.”

Had cameras proved useful to his former employer? “The only time we’d get asked for footage was when the big dogs needed an excuse to fire someone for cause. They’d say, pull the tapes of so-and-so arriving in the morning the last six months. They’d comb through, and if the guy was late three times in a certain period, that gave them an excuse to fire him without having to pay. And with around-the-clock video of everyone, with everyone’s computer records being available, anyone was fireable. Surveillance cameras just provided what was needed; nobody could withstand that kind of scrutiny.”

That’s my feeling about the moment-to-moment hyper-accountability of mass surveillance: it provides those given access to the footage—or e-mail metadata, or browser histories—the means to selectively discredit or indict anyone, at any time.

At my friend’s former employer, the top executives had access to all the information. On the internet, the U.S. Government apparently has access to all the information. In New Orleans, the spider at the center of our growing surveillance-camera web is a private citizen, operating without oversight or accountability.


The CCTVangelist

Our city’s crime-camera clusterfuck has, like so many other failures, provided an opening for the ambitious private sector to prove it can do the crucial oppressive work of government at considerable cost savings.  A few years back, it suddenly seemed every crime story on prompted a comment from one Bryan Lagarde of Project NOLA, shilling his crime cameras. He was all over the Marigny forum, where he found an eager, receptive audience for his sales pitch. He was a man on a mission.

In 2011, the crusading Lagarde had sold 50 Project NOLA surveillance cameras; now he and his pony-tailed tech-whiz sidekick control a camera network six hundred strong and growing. The Project NOLA concept is that you get a refreshingly affordable Project NOLA surveillance camera installed at your home or business, Project NOLA records what the camera sees around the clock, and when someone pilfers your pot of peonies, Project NOLA provides police the pertinent pictures.

This is great for NOPD, firstly because they don’t have to pay for any of this—the costs are borne by the home or business owner and the increasingly grant-funded Project NOLA nonprofit—and secondly because private cameras can do things the government’s not allowed to. Interviewed by Katy Reckdahl in January 2012, Chief Serpas was enthusiastic about the increase of private security camera footage available to NOPD, noting with relish that while government-installed cameras are constrained by constitutional law and thus cannot record or be pointed places someone would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, home or business cameras can be anywhere, pointed anywhere.

art by Ben PassmoreProject NOLA cameras have spread like cat’s claw through neighborhoods citywide, with one notable exception. While there are a few Project NOLA cameras in the French Quarter, Lagarde’s efforts there encountered significant pushback from the Vieux Carre Commission. The roots of this turf battle are too deep in he-said/she-said for even as cheerfully irresponsible a writer as myself to try and characterize, but in 2012 the French Quarter Management District, one of many membership-sharing oligarchies claiming to represent the Quarter’s best interests, started its own program for providing NOPD access to private cameras.

SafeCams8 is the brainchild of two retirees who moved to the French Quarter, one from Los Angeles and the other, a former Lockheed Martin executive, from England. It’s nothing fancy: if you are in the Eighth District and have surveillance cameras, SafeCams8 would like to know about them, so that if something happens that your cams might have seen, NOPD can come knocking and politely request a peek.

SafeCams8 began as a French Quarter project but has expanded in partnership with the Downtown Development District. Like Project NOLA, SafeCams8 makes a point of keeping secret the locations of its cameras. While SafeCams8 and Project NOLA ostensibly share the same goal—to give NOPD access to footage from a secret network of privately owned surveillance cameras—their methods provide interesting contrasts.

SafeCams8, for all the funds and hype dedicated to it, is quite literally just an annotated Google Map two retirees set up for the benefit of the technological illiterates at NOPD. Project NOLA is a physical network of cameras that all feed into Bryan Lagarde’s Harahan office, where he and he alone decides who gets to see what.

The French Quarter Management District and the Downtown Development District are unholy China-style minotaurs—governmental bodies in service to industry heads—but they’re at least nominally dependent on the tax monies they’re apportioned and the politicos who appoint their membership. Project NOLA is pure private sector, and unlike the sinecured ghouls of the VCC and French Quarter Management District, Bryan Lagarde is a businessman.


“Why shouldn’t I do it?”

Besides being the face and the tireless voice of the Project NOLA non-profit, Bryan Lagarde runs a couple of businesses that sell the same security cameras Project NOLA does. A story WWL-TV’s Katie Moore filed in November 2013 provides the closest examination to date of the complex shell game that is Lagarde’s various ventures, non-profit and for-, which not incidentally all use the same facilities, equipment and staff.

The WWL-TV report mulled over whether the supposedly cheap camera packages Lagarde sells while wearing his Project NOLA hat are really discounted. I have no idea if Lagarde is somehow skimming money off Project NOLA, but I hope that’s the case. I always assumed he was lining his pockets, purely on the compelling circumstantial three-fold of him being ex-NOPD, it being a registered non-profit, and this being New Orleans. Far more alarming is the possibility Lagarde isn’t doing this for the money. That would mean his successful campaign to construct a vast, citywide hidden-camera network which he alone controls and has access to is motivated by something besides making a profit… and that’s fucking scary.

In 2012, the New York City Police Department unveiled Domain Surveillance, a massive surveillance system created in partnership with Microsoft. Under the auspices of Domain Surveillance, NYPD records, around the clock, the data from thousands of CCTV cameras all over the city. To mollify the civil-liberties sillies, the NYPD drew up and issued Public Security Privacy Guidelines for the system. These guidelines lay out non-discrimination policies (“As with all NYPD operations, no person will be targeted or monitored by the Domain Awareness System solely because of actual or perceived race, color, religion…”) a commitment to data security (“To protect the integrity of its data from hacking”), a clear chain of command, specific rules about who’s allowed to see what under which circumstances, and “An immutable audit log of where and when data is accessed.”

Legally binding assurances of due process, security, and accountability: Project NOLA has none of these in place. All the data from all the Project NOLA cameras and all decisions about who sees what rest entirely in the hands of Lagarde. Homeowners who want to see any of the footage Lagarde records from the cameras they bought from him have to ask Lagarde to show them the footage, and unless he deems their request appropriate or “legitimate,” he’s explained, he’ll turn them down. In some cases—we can’t know how many—he’s bypassed the homeowner entirely, sending their footage to law enforcement agencies without the camera’s owner being notified or allowed to see what he’s sending. All of the footage from the cameras is Lagarde’s; if he wanted to sell it all or charge people, organizations, or agencies fees for access to it, he’d be legally within his rights, and under no obligation to let anyone know he’d done so. That’s the beauty of private enterprise, and that’s the system people with Project NOLA cameras have signed up for and helped construct.

Lagarde doesn’t even live in Orleans Parish, which WWL-TV’s Katie Moore made note of: “We asked Lagarde why he would provide so much equipment, time, work and services to a city that he neither lives nor works in. ‘Why would you do that?’ WWL-TV asked. ‘Why shouldn’t I do it? I’m just doing it to help,’ Lagarde replied.”


What Does The Cox Say?

I spoke on background with a network consultant about what the citywide data infrastructure of Project NOLA would look like. Taking at face value Project NOLA’s promise, “Free of charge, Project NOLA records the Internet video feed from each crime camera,” this consultant showed me a calculus of what doing so would require, factoring in the number of cameras and their vaunted high definition as well as the compression, pixel resolution and frame rate of stored video data.

“We can make a conservative estimate of two gigabytes of compressed video per camera, per hour,” the consultant said. “Using the numbers provided by Project NOLA, we are looking at a network that would need to transmit and store 10,512,000 gigabytes—or 10,512 terabytes—of data yearly. Especially given the physical infrastructure of New Orleans, that’s expensive and complicated.

“With increasing transmission and storage of data come increasing risks to the security and soundness of the data and the network on which it travels… The larger and more complex a storage and transmission service is, the more points of vulnerability are multiplied—as well as the cost and personnel needs.” Beyond the general principle of mo’ data, mo’ problems, how hard would it be for a hacker to get access to video feeds like Project NOLA’s? “That’s not a subject I’m comfortable getting specific about,” the network consultant said. “Let’s just say any system is only as smart as its administrators. I’d say the intended functionality, Bryan surrounded by monitors like Batman in The Dark Knight, is already weird enough.”


Bywater Art Gallery on St. Claude
Bywater Art Gallery on St. Claude

New Neighbors

Once, the eyes of a neighborhood were its elderly who sat out all day. As one security-camera installer pointed out to me, the increase in cameras has coincided with the increasing affordability of home air conditioning; people aren’t sitting on porches like they used to.

But some still do. There’s a house not far from me where four generations of the family who own it—plus a rotating assortment of cousins—sit out front all day in lawn chairs. One of the nephews, JJ, cuts lawns for a living; he used to cut ours. Last time JJ’s family threw a party, they had music, and my partner and I went over to dance.

It was then I learned that JJ’s family had new neighbors. On the side of this new neighbor’s house, in flagrant violation of the Bywater Historical District guidelines, the new neighbors have installed a massive camera pointed directly at the front yard next door where everyone sits around all day.  NIGHT VISION, says a plaque below the huge camera. Two unfamiliar white people whom I presumed to be these new, night-visionary neighbors were out on the raised porch of this next-door house, using an expensive hand-held camera to film JJ’s family dancing.

And that’s how security cameras came to that block of the Ninth Ward.

I spoke with New Orleans graffiti artist Impetus, one of that unicorn-rare subset of street artists who aren’t macho douchebags. “The camera culture is far worse in other cities,” Impetus said. “But New Orleans is changing, becoming more like other cities. And everywhere, everybody having their own camera in their pocket creates a sort of snitch society, giving surveillance access to places it never could have gone. In [Orwell’s] 1984, there are telescreens in your home that you have to keep on all the time, which both show you propaganda and record your actions. Now we have iPhones you can’t take the battery out of, tracking devices that we pay hundreds of dollars to carry with us everywhere. It’s brilliant, in that sick way capitalism is brilliant.

“The surveillance cameras are spreading out from affluent neighborhoods, spreading with the wealth that they protect. New Orleans always had that small-town, ‘Oh we all know each other, we’re all neighbors’ feel, but increasingly there’s new people and new money coming into neighborhoods where there didn’t used to be rich people. And the new people are afraid of their neighbors, so they put up cameras.”


Security Blankets

People wouldn’t install security cameras if they weren’t afraid, and whether we’re afraid of old age, neighbors who throw parties, or our own general feeling of disconnection, the miracle of the free market has always got a product or service which promises to assuage our anxieties. I don’t hold myself above those who make choices out of fear; when I first moved to the Ninth Ward, I carried a handgun whenever I left the house. At the time, I considered this a sensibly adult acknowledgement of an unfortunate reality: my friends who lived downriver of Esplanade were constantly getting mugged, beat up and worse.

art by Ben Passmore

After one teenager shot another in front of my house, after my partner and I ran to the shot teenager and stood helplessly over him, shouting empty reassurances at him while he writhed and gasped and bled on the banquette, I began to think about what carrying a gun everywhere meant. Carrying a gun was, in a real way, creating the possibility of shooting someone. I’d acknowledged that intellectually, but I hadn’t understood it. While I’d lost friends to gun violence, it was seeing a kid who’d been shot up close made me realize how fucking stupid I’d been.

The decision to carry a gun wasn’t one I had fully thought through the implications of; it had been a reaction to fear which I rationalized and then habitualized. Without delving any further into the thorny politics of firearms, I now see the pistol I used to pack for what it was: a security blanket, a magic talisman I superstitiously hoped would insulate me from the brutal economic inequalities of the place I chose to live.

When I quit carrying a handgun around, I found I stopped looking at casual interactions as potential shootouts. If you have a camera, you might feel better without it. Take it down, give it a month, and see if you miss it. For those feeling more proactive, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who knows something about life under surveillance, created and released DIY instructions to “block” security cameras using an easy-to-construct device that deploys a can of spray paint at the end of a pole (full instructions can be found online—though of course Antigravity does not condone illegal behavior).

Pointing a camera at someone isn’t as threatening as pointing a gun, but it’s still a hostile action, and I don’t believe hostility towards one’s neighbors is healthy. Surveillance cameras, born of fear, create more fear, and I think there’s an excess of that already. Cameras of all kinds distance us from one another, and they even distance us from our own lives: when we interpose a camera between ourselves and our situation, we hand off to a machine the important responsibility of bearing witness to our lives and experiences.

There are camera networks, like the traffic cameras I’ve almost entirely avoided talking about, that are imposed on us by the government; but as it stands, the most pernicious ones are those we ourselves help build, willingly surrendering our security and privacy to the NSA (Google Glass, Apple iPhone) or to some wingnut playing Big Brother in an Elmwood industrial park. The good news is that, just as we helped build these, we can help take them back apart, conversation by conversation, camera by camera.