TCS Daily


Not So Candid Camera

By Radley Balko - February 6, 2002 12:00 AM

This is the age of machinery,
A mechanical nightmare,
The wonderful world of technology...

I was born in a welfare state
Ruled by bureaucracy
Controlled by civil servants
And people dressed in grey
Got no privacy, got no liberty
Cos' the twentieth century people
Took it all away from me.


--The Kinks' Ray Davies, in "20th Century Man."

Last September, Angela Brock-Smith, a resident of Washington D.C., was issued a $50 speeding ticket for barreling her white truck at 45-mph through a 30-mph speed zone, The Washington Times reported last week. There's just one problem. Angela Brock-Smith doesn't own a white truck. She owns a blue Chevy Lumina. And it hasn't puttered, much less barreled, a foot since it broke down last July - two months before her "violation."

It seems that one of D.C.'s new revenue-generating toys, an automated photo-snapping radar affixed to the side of the road, couldn't get a good read on the offending truck's license plate. So somebody saw an "AR," and a "049," and guestimated it to be Brock-Smith's "AR8049" tag. They guessed wrong.

The D.C. radars are installed and operated by Affiliated Computer Systems, which gets $29 for every ticket issued by its cyber-cops. The company already operates cameras in Hawaii and Australia, among other places.

Here's the kicker: When Brock-Smith appealed her ticket, guess who got first crack at her mailed-in complaint? No, it wasn't a traffic court, or a D.C. bureaucrat. It was ACS, the very company that profits from her ticket. ACS, a private company, serves as cop, judge, jury and executioner. And they make $29 for every execution.

Red-Light Districts

Automated camera speed traps snuck into public acceptance after the success of automated red-light cameras. Red-light cameras have been around for several years now, and have effectively reduced the number of red-light runners.

But while red-light cameras did dramatically reduce infractions at dangerous intersections, it's not yet clear that they are in fact the best solution to red-light running.

Last summer, a study conducted in Fairfax County, Virginia, home to cameras operated and profited by Lockheed Martin, found that simply increasing the "yellow" time at a given intersection by 1.5 seconds dropped red-light infractions by 96%, significantly more than the decrease effected by installing cameras.

Now, picture yourself a city councilman. You have two options to better road safety, increase yellow times at intersections in your town, which will bring in no new revenue, or install camera-cops that have in some cases issued 500 citations per hour (as the camera at New York Avenue and 4th St. in Northwest D.C. has) and could generate millions for city coffers (Sydney, Australia raked in over $20 million AU from camera citations in 2000).

In fact, for city officials facing tight budgets, it might be tempting to shorten yellows. After all, wouldn't shaving a few fractions off of city yellows seem preferable to raising taxes or cutting city services?

There are more problems. A recent University of Virginia study found that on high-speed multi-lane highways - the camera-laden George Washington Parkway in D.C., for example - automated cameras were able to provide clear images of plate, driver and vehicle just 3% of the time.

Keeping Tabs

And then there are privacy concerns. When the National Park Service first floated the idea of automated cameras on D.C.'s George Washington Parkway, House Majority Leader Dick Armey worried that such cameras might intrude on commuter privacy. The Washington Post mocked Armey in an editorial, asserting that hauling two tons of steel down a public highway at an unsafe speed merits no protection of privacy.

Perhaps. But consider a woman in the United Kingdom who got in hot water when an intersection camera caught her joyriding in her husband's pet sports car - a car he'd forbidden her to drive.

Drivers.com reports that ACME Rent-a-Car in Connecticut has installed GPS positioning in all of its rentals. Your speed, position and mileage are monitored from above. Violate the company's speed limit, and suffer an automatic $150 charge on your next credit statement.

The same Web site reports that the United Kingdom is considering installing GPS systems in every car in the country within ten years. Satellite navigation, combined with digital roadmaps preprogrammed with local laws, would cut off the fuel supply in your car once you've hit the speed limit. Let's hope your wife isn't in labor. Sweden and Holland are exploring similar programs.

And this month's National Review reports that Finland has taken all of this a step further. In Finland, fines for traffic violations are tied to personal income. Consequently, in the past, when a cop pulled you over, he'd ask what you make - and maybe you'd fib. No more. In 1999 a new system was installed, whereby the cop can tap into your public records via cellular phone. Voila! On the spot, he issues you a ticket that's proportional to your net worth.

The magazine goes on to report a delicious karmic dress-down. It seems that two offenders since the new system was installed are Anssi Vanjoki and Pekka Ala-Pietila, director and president, respectively, of cellular giant Nokia. Between them, the two execs were fined the U.S. equivalent of $134,000. This, for one red-light violation and one speeding violation - 16-mph over the limit. But don't feel bad for them. It's Nokia technology that makes the whole system possible.

Finally, as the National Motorists Association points out, there is an important distinction between red-light running and speeding: Red-light runners are almost always a legitimate hazard. Every violation carries high potential for accidents and, because most light-runners are gunning to clear the intersection, every accident carries high potential for fatalities. But everybody speeds, and not all speeding is unsafe. Highways are built with speeders in mind, and there's a fair amount of arbitrariness to speed zones. That's why cops generally give drivers five or ten miles per hour leeway.

It's easy to dismiss this as sour grapes. Red-light runners and speeders are, after all, breaking the law - and on public roads. So why concern ourselves with how they're caught? Because these systems are ripe for abuse, for error, and for bureaucratic snafu. To tie law enforcement to pro-rata profiteering builds in perverse incentives.

Freedom of movement is a fundamental natural right. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld that right, making exceptions only in the interest of national security. But freedom to travel is meaningless without the freedom to travel anonymously. And emerging technologies -- with the potential to link satellite positioning with speed with built-in navigation systems with personal and financial records -- threaten to obliterate any degree of anonymity.

So in the future, watch your speed and watch your red lights. Watch that you're not caught someplace embarrassing. Because even if you're not watching, someone else probably will be.
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