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Who's watching you? Today, it's hard to escape those eyes in the sky

Florida Today

Anyone driving on Interstate 95 in the north half of Brevard County during the week is almost guaranteed to be piped into Eddie Grant's computers.

The operations manager works for Traffic Management Inc., the company the state pays to monitor traffic in Central Florida. In the Traffic Management Center in Orlando, he sits before a long, dimly lighted wall covered in rear-projected video images of traffic slushing under cameras in Brevard, Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties.

Beneath each camera are sensors in the road that detect traffic speed, and if that slows, Grant may pivot or zoom the images to assess the situation. He can send messages to highway signs to warn of delays, manage hurricane evacuations or dispatch emergency workers to accidents.

Sometimes a truckload of beer will capsize or an SUV will careen off a bridge, but on a calm day, not much memorable happens on these screens, just as drivers don't have much reason to notice the cameras are there in the first place.

"It's funny," Grant said, "that people don't even know we're watching them."

Improving technology and security concerns are nudging society into a state of varied and constant surveillance, meaning people are being watched more than they may realize. Cameras under black plastic domes survey Publix frozen foods aisles, Wuesthoff hospital lobbies, the marked-down jeans at Dillard's, the PlayStation 2 games at Blockbuster, highways, airports, casinos and offices.

It's a black-dome world we're living in. Depending on whom you ask, the domes and the vigiliance they represent are a boon to safety, invisible background props or a source of the willies.

"Everybody has kind of come to the conclusion that any place that's public, you're apt to be recorded," said Lynda Ayers, general manager of DetectAlert Inc., a security installation and monitoring company in Melbourne. "I think in the long run it's a good deterrent. If you walk into a convenience store and see that camera looking down at you, you're less likely to hold up the cashier."

Some surveillance is benevolent -- nearly anyone stranded on the Bee Line would be happy to have the Florida Highway Patrol take notice. Larry Wuensch, the senior director of marketing and development at Melbourne International Airport can remember the days when "you just walked out onto the apron and handed your ticket to a smiling ticket agent and got on your airplane." Now the layers are so thick, they're not fully explained to the public.

"We have very, very sophisticated equipment," Wuensch said. "But again, there are very, very legitimate reasons for airports to have them. . . . I think when people get upset is when excessive measures are taken on 2-year-old children and old ladies. But I think everybody recognizes that higher levels of awareness of security on 9/11 would have saved a lot of lives, and no one wants a repeat of that."

Perhaps constant video surveillance is, like random groin-wandings, a small price for feeling safer on planes, just as having a camera over your shoulder in a department store may be worth a drop in shoplifting.

But the prospect of being watched by strangers inspires ire in some. A New York group of guerilla thespians calling themselves the Surveillance Camera Players stage silent plays for public surveillance cameras, to protest their existence. The group's founder, Bill Brown, writes in an e-mail from Brooklyn that "if people have had a bad experience with a cop or security guard, they are opposed to surveillance. If they have had no bad experiences, they are in favor of it."

The marquee of the Friendship Fellowship at Pineda Unitarian-Universalist church earlier this year read: "Surveillance Undermines Liberty." John Lees, the former chairman of the Rockledge church, displayed that message because he opposes the Patriot Act, a legislative salvo that passed two years ago this month, under the rubric of fighting terrorism.

Speaking to about 20 congregants and other visitors at the church a few weeks ago, Lees criticized the law for cloaking judicial proceedings, broadening the definition of "terrorists" to include many political demonstrators and loosening restrictions on wire taps.

Ann Hodge, 77, of Patrick Shores, watched the presentation and bristled. Near the end, she asked, "What is that novel -- '1984'? We are at that threshold. They could put a camera in your bathroom.

"Well, whatever they want to see," she said, laughing, "they can have it."

George Orwell wrote "1984" in the earliest years of the Cold War. He imagined a dystopian England in which citizens were constantly monitored by Thought Police and any action, public or private, was apt to be recorded by a totalitarian regime personified as "Big Brother."

The book casts a long metaphor over any electronic supervision. Refering to the traffic cameras (which don't record), Jerry Woods, an assistant district traffic operations engineer, said: "We're not Big Brother. We're not going in and looking in close." And in discussing diminishing privacy in America, Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said: "A lot of people think of this as just the Big Brother thing. What we're really talking about is, what is the effect on the American public when more of us know that there's no anonymity in American society anymore?"

On a small scale, practically anyone with a spare grand can install surveillance cameras that feed into hard drives or closed circuit TVs, in homes or businesses. Ray Myers, a manager at Spy Source Warehouse in Melbourne, said that while cameras come small enough to fit in smoke detectors, picture frames and working alarm clocks, the advantage of the reflective dome is that no one can tell where the camera inside is looking.

"We have one," Myers said, indicating a dark bulb near the ceiling fan.

Whoa, that's weird. Hadn't noticed.

"Most people don't," he said, "unless they plan to steal something."

Some shops rely on more old-fashioned methods. Myers tells the story of a young man who applied for a job at the Palm Bay Publix where Myers once worked. The applicant had arrived without a pen, and made a terrible first impression by filching one off the shelves. Store management watched closely and later confronted the man, who did not land the job.

At Team Choice, a sports memorabilia store in the Melbourne Square mall, manager Jason Barnhart greets every customer, a low-tech way of reminding people he notices them. It works, he said, "as long as we're not goofing off, playing video games or something." But he also notices the surveillance bubbles when he visits department stores.

"Maybe there are no cameras in the bubbles," Barnhart said. "Maybe it's all about paranoia. Paranoia -- it's a great weapon."

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