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Is Big Brother Watching You?

“So you don’t want to be on camera?” the doorman laughed as he saw me flatten myself into a pancake so I could squeeze inside a crevice in the vestibule outside range of the roving eye.

“Oh, I’m just waiting for a friend,” I smiled meekly as I tried to unfold myself.

“They’re on us all day long,” he cast me a knowing glance.

Better get used to it. They’re everywhere – the cameras.  They helped capture those subway terrorists in London.  Now our Mayor is talking about installing them here in New York, figuring maybe he’ll nab a few terrorists, or at least some bad guys.  And lately they’re making increasing inroads into High Rise Society, even though last time I looked there weren’t a lot of terrorists, unless they’re hiding out in one of those sleeper cells.

We succumbed to the trend recently in my building.  I admit I voted for the camera along with everyone else.  It wasn’t to protect us from terrorists.  It was more that half the board was worried that residents were hassling staff, and the other half was concerned that staff were hassling residents, and each side wanted to prove they were right and the other wrong, and both sides figured the camera would do it. But I’m having second thoughts about the whole thing.  I used to stop and shoot the breeze with staff as I came in or went out, but I’m not enthusiastic about having my every move recorded so now I rush by intent on keeping out of camera range. I notice I’m not the only one.

Usually boards install cameras in their buildings’ vestibule to keep an eye on who’s walking in so they can keep insiders safe from outsiders.  But rarely do they allow the roving eyes to look outside the front door because boards are coached that if they know what’s going on outside, they and the building might be liable should something bad happen. And if there’s a murder or a robbery the last thing they want is for someone — anyone — to be able to say they knew it was dangerous out there. Ignorance is legal bliss.

Lots of buildings also hook up cameras in the elevators, I guess cause they figure an enclosed space can be a dangerous place. I admit this isn’t a totally illogical fear, though the worst thing that ever happened in our elevator is that some woman rode down stark naked, not a sight I think anyone wanted recorded for posterity. We almost wired our elevators awhile back to try to catch the phantom who was defacing the stainless steel doors. I’m glad we didn’t because I think there’s an expectation of privacy in elevator cabs like in bathroom stalls.  Don’t tell me you never did something in the seclusion of the space that you wouldn’t want the world to see – like pick your nose or make out or turn your head while your dog left a swimming-pool sized puddle.

The latest battleground is in really ritzy buildings where residents sometimes install their own surveillance devices.  One owner had so many apartments on the 46th and 47th floors of Olympic Towers that he put in video devices to protect his empire.  Only his neighbor insisted he and his kids were being spied on. The cameras got to stay, after a security consultant determined that they only viewed the space outside the camera man’s door, and couldn’t monitor the guy next door.  But the neighbor left, renting out his apartments for almost $40,000 a month, thereby disproving his claim that the cameras decreased the value of his property, and proving that bad cameras make bad neighbors.

If you plan on installing video cameras outside your apartment you need to get board permission.  If your real intent is to spy on your neighbor there may be less expensive, more effective ways to go. (See, Secret Agent.)  And if you really think your next door neighbor is a serial killer — MOVE.

Branscombe Investments, Ltd. v. Board of Managers of the Olympic Tower Condominium, 2008 NY Slip Op. 30334(U), Jan. 22, 2008, Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co.,can be accessed at Seaerch NY Slip Decisions by inserting the case year and number under Search by Citation.

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