NEW YORK (AP) - Six surveillance cameras could be seen peering out from a chain drug store on Broadway. One protruded awkwardly from the awning of a fast-food restaurant. A supersized, domed version hovered like a flying saucer outside Columbia University. To the dismay of civil libertarians and with the approval of law enforcement, they've been multiplying at a dizzying rate all over Manhattan.
"As many as we find, we miss so many more," Alex Stone-Tharp, 21, said on a recent afternoon while combing the streets, clipboard in hand, counting cameras in the scorching heat.
A student at Sarah Lawrence, Stone-Tharp is among a dozen college interns enlisted by the New York Civil Liberties Union to bolster their side of a simmering debate over whether surveillance cameras wrongly encroach on privacy, or effectively combat crime and even terrorism - as in the London bombings investigation, when the cameras were used to identify the bombers.
The interns have spent the summer stalking Big Brother - collecting data for an upcoming NYCLU report on the proliferation of cameras trained on streets, sidewalks and other public spaces.
New York City police detectives regularly rely on private security cameras in a bid to solve crimes.
After makeshift grenades exploded outside the British consulate in midtown Manhattan on May 5, they studied scores of videotape and concluded that a still-unidentified cyclist likely tossed the devices before fleeing.
In London, British police used videotape from some of their Underground system's 6,000 cameras to help identify the suicide bombers on July 7 and the suspects in a failed attack on July 21. But as the bombings showed, the cameras do not deter determined attackers.
At last count in 1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union found 2,397 cameras used by a wide variety of private businesses and government agencies throughout Manhattan. This time, after canvassing less than a quarter of the borough, the interns so far have spotted more than 4,000.
The preliminary total "only provides a glimpse of the magnitude of the problem," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "Nobody has a clue how many there really are."
But aside from sheer numbers, the NYCLU says it's concerned about the increasing use of newer, more powerful digital cameras that - unlike boxy older models - can be controlled remotely and store more images.
The group expects to eventually publicize its findings to convince the public that the cameras should be regulated to preserve privacy and guard against abuses like racial profiling and voyeurism. Privacy advocates have cited a case earlier this year in which a police videotape that captured a suicide at a Bronx housing development later turned up on a pornographic Web site.