Boss Recorded Running Stop Sign: The Perils of Public Surveillance

Traffic cameras automatically ticket drivers who run red lights and stop signs. A sign of things to come?

The machines are watching you drive. Video cameras are starting to appear in more cities, working as 24/7 surveillance devices to catch drivers running red lights or failing to stop at intersections. Want to argue with the authorities about whether or not you violated the law? Well, now they send you a video clip of the incident for you to watch online. Try arguing with a movie. The video cameras are generally only  triggered to record when a driver violates a statute, and that recording is then used to determine the license plate of the car, and to mail the owner a ticket and link to the incriminating video. The concept hit close to home after my boss, Keith Kleiner, become one of thousands of California residents to receive a ticket from a camera-patrolled intersection. Keith, dude, you own a website about accelerating technology; you of all people shouldn’t have let the robots catch you on camera! We’ve got the official video of that event for you below. The presence of these cameras speaks to the increase in surveillance that’s going to pervade our future world, just as the public reaction to them speaks to the outcry that may arise as they do.

The US has a turbulent relationship with traffic camera surveillance. Proponents (mainly insurance companies and municipalities) point to their ability to cut down on violations. Opponents (mainly those who receive tickets, and privacy advocates) challenge the efficacy of the cameras and allege that they are little more than cash-generating schemes for individual cities. The web, always the the battleground for such debates, has sites that describe the benefits of traffic surveillance and sites aimed at helping you defeat camera-derived tickets. Opposition to the concept of continuous highway monitoring may have even turned violent. An Arizona man may have killed a radar van operator in response to the use of the technology to observe drivers on the road.

All of this over what is typically a fairly innocuous experience. In California, those caught on camera are often sent a ticket by mail complete with a URL that links to a video of the violation. (A police officer has reviewed these videos before they are sent.) When faced with the plain evidence of having run a red light (or stop sign), most drivers simply pay the fine. Look at the video below to see what Kleiner was faced with when he received notice of his traffic violation.  Would you actually argue the fact that you ran the stop sign?

No, probably not. But you might argue against the system that caught you. Traffic cameras are part of a larger trend towards surveillance of public places. There are millions of CCTV cameras up in the UK, with a million in London alone. The EU is pursuing vast programs for continually monitoring online activities. The US has its own history with wire-tapping, phone-mining, and other surveillance systems. Private companies, every entity from mega corporations down to the local corner store, have cameras up and recording business. Most of these endeavors are supposed to make things safer.

Whether or not they are successful depends on the situation. As we discussed before, the CCTV cameras in London haven’t been seen as a dependable criminal deterrent. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (US) asserts that traffic cameras reduce fatal and nonfatal intersection collisions. Of course, there are detractors (and supporters) for all of the claims around these technologies. There’s too much data to try to wade through in one post. I will venture to say that these technologies aren’t perfect, but that they have some potential for stopping crime and preventing accidents.

What happens when they do become perfect? Triggering precision and camera speeds have been increasing for years (even your hand held digital camera is pretty amazing) and will probably continue to do so. Already we’ve seen advanced software packages for sale that will help turn hours and hours of CCTV camera footage into useful clips. We’ll have better monitoring systems and the processing techniques to help us use it. Even if you think that today’s surveillance technology doesn’t work well enough now, it’s hard to argue that it won’t ever become better. And they’re likely to become cheaper as well. Eventually we could place surveillance video cameras on every corner of every street. If there was a nearly 100% chance of getting caught, stopping violations might end overnight. Today’s system is surely flawed in some ways, but anyone should be able to envision a system with very real benefits.

So it really all comes down to privacy. That and the gut-response to learning that some observations of the law (if not its enforcement) will be handled by computers instead of humans. Are these concerns enough to stop the use of public surveillance? Many countries throughout Europe already have traffic cameras in use. They’re also fairly common in Pennsylvania and California. Red-light cameras, however, are banned in Mississippi and West Virginia. There are numerous lawsuits over their use in Florida, and Arizona has reported many instances of vandalism and, sadly, murder.

Every region is likely to make its own choice about the degree it will accept public surveillance. And immediate success doesn’t seem to be the defining factor that dictates how a region will approach the subject. It’s more likely that the people in each nation/state/city will decide on how to accept public surveillance based on their own conceptions of privacy and law enforcement. The UK and London seems to be dedicated to its CCTV program for the long haul. Faced with a disappointing start they’re developing (along with the EC) the means by which to make their system more effective.

Which should prove an interesting endeavor as technology gets even deeper into our lives and our bodies. Monitoring street corners is child’s play. Some day every car will have automatic GPS guidance, probably even automatic driving. Will that be supervised? Later our bodies will be completely monitored for our health, and we may be using our brains to directly interface with computers. How will we even conceive of public vs private spaces when we spend most of our lives interacting online?

While there may be large regions of the world that never adopt government use of public surveillance there are certain to be many areas that do. Moreover, it doesn’t take a government to perform public surveillance. As we’ve said time and again, privacy is dying a slow death, or at least undergoing a metamorphosis. Cameras are getting smaller, cheaper, easier to use, and any private company can put them up around their place of business. Google software reads your emails and tracks your searches to provide you with pinpointed ads. Facebook users share personal information with huge networks of “friends” and Twitter broadcasts your activities into the online aether. Faced with these changes in our perception of monitoring it seems likely that a good deal of us, probably a majority, will eventually accept traffic cameras as just another part of modern life.

Public surveillance isn’t completely effective yet, and it’s certainly not completely accepted, but it’s growing. The rise of 24/7 monitoring may not be unstoppable, but it will take a lot more than a little controversy to slow it down. Considering how rapidly technology is changing our lives, the big debates are still to come. In the meantime, remember to wave to the cameras when you pass through an intersection. They love that. Just ask Keith.

[image credit: Derek Jensen via WikiCommons]

[source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/Highway Loss Data Institute, PhotoNotice, PhotoEnforced]

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