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Smile, You're on Candid (Speed) Camera!

JBS | August 26, 2007
Wilton D. Alston

It's a brave new world... in Arizona. In other news, George Orwell just phoned from Australia, and he wants his 1984 back.

Word has it that the State is embracing technology in ways that Orwell predicted quite some time ago. It's a veritable smorgasbord of Orwell's "big brother" come to life: fixed cameras that catch speeders as they go past "troublesome" locations; roaming cameras that record license plates to check for outstanding warrants; traffic light cameras that dispense tickets when people "crowd" the "box junctions" (all the rage in Scotland); car-based systems that warn the driver, or take more direct action, if he disobeys posted speed limits.

The latest innovation planned for Oz: a car-borne system that will actually prohibit the driver from speeding! As someone very familiar with the latest innovations in positive train control (PTC), I understand very well that safety is a concern worth having. Systems that monitor and impose speed restrictions are not at all uncommon in the transit world. It was just a matter of time, in my view, before the thinking behind these systems was applied to the much less controlled world of automobiles. That much is certain. And certainly any improvement in safety would be hard to argue with, even from the standpoint of individual freedom.

Still, something about all this makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I see wording related to these proposals that says things like: "...any law enforcement purpose as requested by the DPS (department of public safety) designee." One is reminded of certain provisions in the USAPatriot Act that allow for certain long-standing provisions of privacy to be usurped when law enforcement has a suspicion, and only a suspicion. Moreover, these technologies are often dependent upon vast databases and it is wise to remember that whenever a database is created and maintained for one purpose - no matter how innocuous that purpose might be - one can be sure that the data will be: a) used for other purposes; and/or b) compromised.

It's not that I want scofflaws and random speeders prowling the highway and byways unfettered by reasonable restriction. Far from it. I just don't want some database that was built for an ostensibly good purpose to find its way into the wrong hands. Call me paranoid, but I figure the hands of the State are always the wrong hands. The reason for this should be relatively obvious. In a free market, if a firm misuses data gathered from its customers, that firm suffers the consequences: lost credibility, leading to lost customers and therefore lost revenue. When a similar event happens to the State - and we know it will - we get an "oops!" at best. Then we end up paying even more money for additional bureaucrats to oversee the misanthropes. Such a deal.

The other problem I have is my impression that the motivation behind many of these "advances" is misplaced. Simply put, if the State can up its income from traffic violations by installing a camera, I believe they will do it, regardless of whether or not the cameras result in more safety. I base this assumption on the absolute fact that I would act in exactly the same way if I were in their position! The incentives clearly drive this action. So even when Governor Janet Napolitano cites reduced speeding and accident rates on a portion of the Arizona State Route 101 freeway in Scottsdale as the justification for traffic cameras, I still have my doubts. That said, who am I to argue with progress if it means more safety?

Maybe it is the fact that one of the nagging complaints about speed cameras is that they are "too objective" that drives my suspicions. Says retired state trooper turned professor Dennis Duane Bryde: "Off-duty law enforcement officers and even some elected officials pulled over for speeding often are accorded 'professional courtesy' and given informal warnings, but that wouldn't happen under an automated system." He thinks this issue would represent a short-coming of the new systems.

So if the systems catch every speeder but let the bureaucrats go free, we can all proclaim, "mission accomplished" huh? I should have known.

"TerrorStorm is something that should be seen by everyone, no matter what their stance/affiliation/political bent. " - Rich Rosell, Digitally Obsessed UK
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