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Staking out common spaces

Staking out common spaces

Most weekday lunch hours, the lobby at 101 Second Street is one of the calmer spots to eat a bag lunch and watch people in downtown San Francisco. But a secret surveillance operation there two weeks ago upset the usual stillness. Armed with digital cameras, several dozen artists circulated through the atrium for a few hours snapping pictures of each other, of strangers, and of the building's hidden cameras and bewildered security guards. This covert action aimed to test the boundaries of public surveillance.

"The camera breeds an atmosphere of fear and intolerance, and reinforces the idea that there's something to be afraid of," said John Bela, cofounder of the Rebar Group art collective that planned the action. Cameras are planted at nearly every corporate lobby, checkout corner, and subway stop, but is Big Brother less menacing when anyone with a cell phone camera can watch the watchers? Bela and fellow Rebar founder Matt Passmore are presenting their results today at a privacy symposium at the University of California at Berkeley.

The effects of last month's action seemed subtle to this undercover observer. It wasn't as if masses of Weegee wannabes suddenly descended upon the unwitting public like paparazzi on Pitt. Strangers posed for the Rebar infiltrators' cameras without question. Building security eventually discouraged the Rebar posse, whose members later said that the lack of immediate opposition nevertheless made them feel empowered.

Rebar chose the Second Street address because it's one of San Francisco's 14 privately owned public spaces, formed when city officials and real estate developers open part of a building to the public in exchange for perks, such as bonus square footage. "Part of our goal is to broaden the sense of behaviors that people find in these places," Passmore said.

The people behind Rebar aren't just merry privacy pranksters; they've also brought guerrilla yoga classes, rooftop kite flying, and other playful activities to various privately owned public spaces (including the lobby of CNETs headquarters). And on their PARK(ing) day, Rebar players roll out sod and benches at metered parking spots to chill out as long as the quarters last.

So what does this have to do with CNET? Rebar's whimsical infiltrations can make you think twice about a life gone digital. We might pass dozens of hidden cameras in a day without blinking. And we easily get immersed in binary worlds of social networking, Webcam-enabled instant messaging, and online role-playing, where we invite strangers into inner realms and suffer if security threats invade our hard drives. But unlike the all-seeing eye of Orwell's Big Brother, our society's surveilled, shared spaces--virtual and real-world ones--might be more like the Panopticon, a prison whose captives are watched without even knowing it. Still, we can reclaim these spaces, bit by bit, with a little wit--and "little brother" digital recording devices are one way to start.