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Eyes on the Street: How Traffic Surveillance Invades Your Privacy

January 10, 2012


traffic light shanghaiCredit: Dreamstime

Is it cutting-edge, or just downright creepy? Surveillance technology is increasingly being implemented in municipalities across the country. But while such gadgets aim to curtail crime and decrease traffic accidents, some people are wondering about the costs to both town budgets and privacy.

“Overall, we wonder if the costs will outweigh the benefits,” said Jay Stanley, a Washington, D.C.-based senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Policy and Technology Project.

Such technology, which includes everything from neighborhood video cameras, red-light cameras and, most recently, parking-space sensors, is popping up faster than mushrooms in a shady forest.

“Over the last several years, traffic-centric surveillance applications were the most prolific,” said Eric Ackermann, sales manager for enterprise solutions and services at Siemens Industry in California’s Orange County. “In the last two years, a vast majority of the demand has come from city water/utility, parks/recreation, police and public works.”

Spurring on the increase are growing municipal concerns about vandalism, copper theft, water tampering and utility service disruption, Ackermann said.

In Chicago alone, some 10,000 surveillance cameras have been installed around the city, with plans to implement another 4,000 units. While the cameras are in place as a potential crime deterrent, and have been used in other cities such as London, networked surveillance can be vulnerable to abuse and can infringe on privacy issues, Stanley said.

“We are seeing a trend in the last five years, something that we never saw before, and that is municipality-run and police-run surveillance cameras and networks,” Stanley said.

Likewise, being able to catch driving or parking violations on tape might be a green light for increased safety and revenues for states and municipalities, but its costs, too, are nothing to honk at.

Implementing red-light camera technology systems can, for instance, range from $67,000 to $80,000 per intersection, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

Pluses and minuses

The systems work using cameras mounted on poles near intersections that capture footage, and the license plate of offending vehicles are identified. Each potential infraction is reviewed and, if found negligent, the car’s owner is sent a ticket. The return on investment for counties and municipalities is that each roll through the light can bring in upwards of $50 per violation.

While cameras help offset the burden of a police officer having to come to court and give live testimony confirming that a violation of the vehicle and traffic laws has occurred, there are drawbacks, said Leo McGinity, an attorney based on New York’s Long Island.

“The camera image is definitely admissible evidence in traffic court for a traffic citation,” McGinity said.

But he added that red-light-camera evidence can and has been challenged in court. It lacks the subjectivity and extenuating circumstances that a human would see, he said — such as a car idling in an intersection, snapped by the camera at an angle that makes it look like the driver blew through a red light.

Parking sensors are the latest in the line of surveillance technology being implemented by states, cities, counties and towns to help police keep ahead of traffic and crime infractions. The hockey-puck-sized devices were installed in suburban Massapequa Park, N.Y., on a trial basis this fall.

The devices monitor only illegal parking spots, such as at fire hydrants or in crosswalks. If they detect a car, they send a message to nearby parking-violations personnel, alerting them of the violation.

But experts say that one of the biggest problems with parking sensors, as with all of these devices, is the absolute right or wrong of it all.

“People get upset when there is 100 percent enforcement,” Stanley said. “That is something we will have to grapple with as a society.”

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