Smile: You're on someone's camera The best year ever for American film was indisputably 1939, but a runner-up is a whole lot harder to choose.; SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY


In the hit movie "The Truman Show," Truman Burbank discovers that he has been on television without knowing it for 30 years, with thousands of television cameras capturing his life and broadcasting it to an audience of millions.

The premise is absurd, of course. Surely a person would know if his every moment was being watched by video cameras.

Or would he?

Let's take a day in the life of an average commuter.

You pull out of your driveway in the morning and set off to work. A highway patrol cruiser falls in behind you. You're not speeding; you haven't broken any traffic laws. But if you did, your high crime or misdemeanor would be recorded by the video camera atop the patrol car's dashboard.

Stop at a convenience store for coffee and a newspaper, and the security camera behind the counter catches the transaction. Back on the highway, your progress is followed by the cameras that state transportation officials have installed along highways to monitor traffic flow. Fail to pay at the toll plaza and - snap! - you're captured on camera. Expect a ticket in the mail.

And as you pull into the company parking lot, walk through the lobby, ride the elevator to your office and sit at your desk, it's possible that you're being monitored by a video camera every step of the way.

Almost everywhere you go these days, in fact, someone is watching. Nanny-cams spy on the baby sitter. Cameras allow you to keep an eye on your kids at day-care via the Internet. Surveillance cameras in supermarkets and department stores and buses, even in the locker room at the gym, track your comings and goings. Visit a strip club or an adult bookstore and there might be a group waiting to catch your license plate on video.

Meantime, cameras on radio towers, on building rooftops, even concealed in fake "transformers" on power poles, keep watch over your city, your street, your neighborhood, your back yard.

And thousands of otherwise ordinary Americans have video cameras in their offices and homes feeding live images from their desktops, living rooms and bedrooms to Web sites on the Internet.

Pictures, pictures, pictures. And who's watching?

In New York City last year, a 26-year-old female apartment dweller noticed that a rooftop camera that was supposed to be monitoring traffic on a nearby freeway interchange was monitoring her - especially at those moments when she was lounging around in her underwear. Some techie in a television studio miles away was having a private show at her expense.

Sometimes no one but the camera is watching. Many establishments have video surveillance systems. but the tapes are only viewed if an incident is reported, and the unviewed tapes are changed or taped over.

At the other extreme are people like Jerry Davis, a Dallas computer consultant and science-fiction writer who set up a video camera at his home computer so people can watch as he works on his latest novel (64,000 words, so far). About 30 or 40 a day visit his Web site - - hoping to catch a glimpse of Davis looking busy or thoughtful or absorbed. It's a spectacle, the writer concedes, only slightly more interesting than watching corn grow.

There is an entire network of folks whose lives, like Truman Burbank's, are on camera, among them the notorious Jennifer "JenniCam" Ringley, a 22-year-old Washington woman whose Quick Cam constantly monitors whatever is happening in her bedroom. Traffic on her Web site - - is so zTC heavy would-be voyeurs often can't access it.

Does this mean that we'll all have, as Andy Warhol predicted, our 15 minutes of fame on camera?

"Right now people are experimenting still with the technology," says Robert Creamer, founder and president of Digital Camera Network, the Boulder, Colo., firm that supplies the software that puts live cams on the Net. "People are going to figure out what's wrong and what violates a sense of privacy."

According to Creamer, almost 5,000 live cams are accessible via Digital Camera Net's Web site ( Some monitor ski slopes, so that skiers can check powder conditions before they set out. Some are focused on downtown skylines, on street corners, stores and - yes - on a few exhibitionists.

"We get over 10,000 users per day, and we've never had any complaint," he says, possibly because there's a little exhibitionist in everybody.

! Pub date: 6/28/98

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