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PORTERVILLE, Calif., Sept. 27— This is the kind of place, small and out of the way, where people keep count of things taken for granted elsewhere.
Three McDonald's restaurants, including the one in the Wal-Mart. One Starbucks, new. Nine screens at the Galaxy theater. Seventy-three jobs at Mervyn's department store.
But even in this town, pushed against the parched foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where oranges and dairy cows seem as plentiful as people, at least one big-city item creates little excitement.
''Surveillance cameras?'' asked Donnette Carter of the Porterville Chamber of Commerce. ''Offhand, I couldn't tell you.''
With the recent arrest of a woman in Indiana whom a security camera videotaped beating her daughter in a parking lot, the presence of electronic eyes across America has drawn new attention.
But what security and privacy specialists have long known might surprise people in towns like this: the surveillance equipment is everywhere, not just in big cities and at obvious places like Times Square or outside the White House, but also in Porterville and Mishawaka, Ind., and hundreds of other places.
More often than not, private rather than public hands are controlling the lenses, as was the case in Indiana.
''There is the very deep notion of private property in our culture, that if you own it, you can do what you want with it,'' said William G. Staples, a University of Kansas sociology professor who has written two books about surveillance. ''That has contributed to the proliferation of surveillance cameras on the private side. It is only since Sept. 11 that the public side has been catching up with what the private sector has been doing for a long time.''
There has been much discussion since Sept. 11 of the growing role of government as Big Brother, with law enforcement agencies turning to tools like face-recognition technology at airports and closed-circuit television systems in public buildings. But Professor Staples and other surveillance experts suggest the general debate should include ''Tiny Brothers,'' a term he and others use to describe the many private security cameras that most people quietly tolerate or do not think about.
Tiny Brothers might be less known, but they disturb people who worry about civil liberties.
''I don't know if we want to uncover everything that goes on,'' Professor Staples said. ''The cameras function as a net-widening effect, catching all kinds of activities they may not have been intended to catch. Those cameras in the parking lot could zoom over someone in a romantic tryst in a car. Do we really want to know all of this?''
The Security Industry Association estimates that at least two million closed-circuit television systems are in the United States. A survey of Manhattan in 1998 by the American Civil Liberties Union found 2,397 cameras fixed on places where people pass or gather, like stores and sidewalks. All but 270 were operated by private entities, the organization reported. CCS International, a company that provides security and monitoring services, calculated last year that the average person was recorded 73 to 75 times a day in New York City.
''We went out and counted every camera we could find,'' said Arielle Jamil, a company spokeswoman. ''Some have dummy cameras, but the real one is looking at you from a different direction.''
Here in Porterville, four cameras are mounted above the entrance to Wal-Mart. Mervyn's has one outside and one inside its front door. Some dangle above the tellers in banks on Olive Avenue, and others capture images of visitors and patients strolling the halls at Sierra View District Hospital. The town's biggest employer, the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, has cameras perched like pigeons on its warehouses.
The list goes on, and it is growing. For about a year, Tom Barcellos, a dairy farmer, has had them watching his employees in a milking parlor on the outskirts of town. A few months ago he turned to the videotapes to resolve a dispute that had ended in a shoving match between two employees. Pleased with the result, Mr. Barcellos is adding cameras to monitor what goes on outdoors on his farm, which has about 800 cows.
''It is more or less a precautionary thing, something to fall back on,'' he said. ''I understand the arguments against them, but I don't worry because I am not doing anything wrong. I consider it security. The people with the biggest problem seem to have a guilty conscience and have something to hide.''
This summer, the Sierra View hospital added cameras to cover a parking garage for doctors and employees. The system is connected to a computer, which a security official can use to focus the lenses to show the faces of people inside cars. Across town, school officials were so upset when the new Burton Middle School was covered with graffiti before it opened that they decided to install four surveillance cameras on the grounds.
''There is a great increase everywhere,'' said Ronald L. Irish, vice president of S.T.O.P. Alarm, a Porterville security company hired to install the school's cameras. ''I even get calls about two or three times a month from people wanting to put cameras around their homes.''
One of the nation's biggest suppliers of video security equipment, Pelco, is based just north of here in Clovis, Calif. Company officials said commercial uses for the equipment far outnumbered public uses, even with new concerns about terrorism.
Dave Smith, Pelco's vice president for marketing, said many companies were still evaluating their needs after Sept. 11, so an expected surge in sales had not yet occurred.
Even so, a market research firm in Connecticut that specializes in security, the J. P, Freeman Company, estimates that the digital video surveillance market is growing 15 percent a year, about four times as fast as the security industry as a whole, as companies seek better surveillance systems and images.
''That growth is quite remarkable against the soft economy,'' said Joe P. Freeman, the company's chief executive. ''In the end, a picture is worth a thousand words. All other forms of security provide you with data, not pictures. People want images stored in a huge storage file so that if anything is discovered later they can go back and see what happened.''
Law enforcement officials almost everywhere have encouraged the trend. Videotaped images generally strengthen criminal cases and take a big load off the investigators trying to piece together a crime.
In some cases, trade organizations have also become involved.
Michael Marsh, the chief executive of the Western United Dairymen, said his group had recommended surveillance equipment to help deter animal rights extremists and more recently to cope with threats of bioterrorism. Private security officials in gambling towns, like Reno, Nev., informally share data from cameras mounted outside casinos. Wayne Harvey, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Security Directors Association, said new cameras were constantly being added in areas not related to gambling.
''The surveillance systems are just as important in the back of the house,'' Mr. Harvey said. ''There is talk of getting Big Brother, but it is a necessary evil in this day and time.''
Mr. Staples, the Kansas professor, said public attitudes about the cameras had changed and tended to be generational. When he speaks about his research to older audiences, he said, he inevitably hears cries of outrage and complaints about the infringement of civil liberties. Younger audiences, like a high school philosophy class he addressed recently, are far more accepting, having grown up with images of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles officers and reality television shows, like ''Big Brother,'' that extol camera-driven voyeurism.
The Sept. 11 attacks might also have created a sense that it is unpatriotic to oppose surveillance. In Quincy, Calif., a tiny mountain town in rural Plumas County, a three-term county supervisor is facing a recall by his constituents because of his stance on surveillance cameras. The supervisor, Robert A. Meacher, unplugged some surveillance equipment set up by the sheriff's department at a music festival last July. It was apparently intended to monitor drug sales.
Mr. Meacher has since apologized for having used some extreme language in criticizing the sheriff's department's tactics, and he said he might not have opposed the equipment if someone had told him about it in advance. Nonetheless, the recall petition accuses him of being against law enforcement, and many people in the sheriff's department are still angry with him.
''The very fact that you raise a question makes you suspect, makes you anti-American,'' Mr. Meacher said. ''It's, 'Whose side are you on?' It shouldn't be like that. I can't help but think of the Buffalo Springfield song: 'Step out of line, and the man comes and takes you away.' ''
Photos: A video camera at a security firm keeps track of skateboarders outside a shop next door in Porterville, Calif., a town of around 40,000 about 45 miles north of Bakersfield, Calif. Such surveillance has become common. (Gary Kazanjian for The New York Times)(pg. 33) Chart/Diagram: ''A CLOSER LOOK: You Really Are Being Watched'' Times Square visitors are not likely to have a huge expectation of privacy, and a 60-minute walk through the neighborhood might confirm their intuition. Careful scrutiny reveals scores of cameras; most are on private property but have a keen view of passers-by. Diagram of Times Square highlighting locations of cameras.
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