Sunday, February 20, 2011

Getting a clearer picture of speed cameras and other surveillance devices

In yesterday's post, we saw that, in Illinois, neither red light cameras nor Chicago Police surveillance cameras, like this one, can be used to nab speeders -- not without new legislation.

But speed cameras are in use in other American jurisdictions and are quite controversial. See, for example, this page on the National Motorists Association website, from which one may navigate to a number of articles about the perceived evils of speed cameras. (The biggest objection, if I can presume to summarize, is the disconnect between speed cameras and safety. Speed cameras are all about revenue, the objectors claim, and there is mounting evidence that, not only do such cameras not enhance driver safety, they may actually cause an increase in traffic accidents.)

But speed cameras, if I understand the technology, are activated only when a vehicle passes by at a pre-set velocity. That is merely the tip of the surveillance camera iceberg. Here, you're looking a pavement camera. From the Highway Safety Group website:
Astucia's hugely imaginative patented Camera Stud may sound like the stuff of science fiction but is an extremely effective tool of traffic management. Housed within a strong metal casing that protrudes a mere 4 mm from the road surface, the camera is a full–function digital video device producing pin–sharp images of approaching or passing vehicles and their registration plates.

The unit is suitable for use on and off the public highway and is capable of operating in practically all environments. The camera also comes with a computer controlled self cleaning unit so that road dirt and grime are removed regularly to maintain the quality of the image captured.
When I found this site, researching this post, the page linked to a video of cars driving over the camera -- and the license plates were clearly visible. And this was from the obsolete model -- the site was reluctant to show the really "pin sharp" videos for "security reasons." And -- when I went back to check the links before publishing this post -- they were gone.


The Highway Safety Group website touts using this pavement camera with an Astucia speed detection stud, "the newest member of its Intelligent Road Stud family." Data from the stud "can be linked with the Astucia camera stud providing an opportunity to also send Automatic Number Plate Registration (ANPR) data of the vehicle captured simultaneously by the camera stud."

Astucia, despite the Spanish name, is an English company. It seems that Mr. Orwell may have been right, just premature.

It may not be true that the average Briton is caught on surveillance video 300 times a day, but there are apparently a lot of cameras pointed at the streets of England.

There are quite a few in Chicago, too. According to a couple of articles earlier this month in the Chicago Sun-Times, there are more than 10,000 public and private surveillance cameras in the city, "the most extensive and integrated in the nation," according to a February 8 article by Fran Spielman and Frank Main. Their article noted a request by the American Civil Liberties Union for a "moratorium on expanding" Chicago's video-surveillance system until "new rules" are enacted "to safeguard citizens’ privacy."

Spielman and Main reported that Chicago aldermen like the surveillance system "because of the sense of security that cameras can bring to residents of high-crime neighborhoods." But the ACLU questions "the effectiveness of the cameras. The city says they accounted for 4,500 arrests from 2006 through May 2010, which the ACLU pointed out is less than 1 percent of the total number of arrests over that period."

The ACLU did not "identify any misconduct involving Chicago’s camera system," according to the Sun-Times article but instead "highlighted problems in England and other cities." The Sun-Times article didn't specify the problems highlighted in the report, but the executive summary of the ACLU report claims:
Male camera operators have ogled women. Sensitive images have been improperly disclosed – like the image of a person committing suicide, which was later posted to a violent pornography website. A study from England found that camera operators targeted black civilians, substantially out of proportion to both their suspicious conduct and their presence in the population being monitored.
You can read the entire ACLU report here.

Fran Spielman's follow-up article for the February 9 Sun-Times noted Mayor Daley's prompt rejection of the ACLU report. Spielman quotes Daley:
“What cameras are is to prevent crime — to tell criminals, ‘Yes, you are gonna be focused [on].’ There’s nothing wrong with that. And to have the good citizens use our sidewalk and our parks, have our children go to and from school. Have our families go to and from church and feel comfortable. We’re not spying on anybody. This is the public way. We’re not spying or identifying or racial profiling anyone.”
But the unblinking eye of the surveillance camera sees, and perhaps records, everything in its view, both the comings and goings of the innocent as well as the actions of criminals.

The outgoing Daley administration touts surveillance cameras as a useful crime-fighting tool. But the cop on the street may not agree, at least if the popular Second City Cop blog is any indication. Commenting on the ACLU report, SCC stated, "cameras don't prevent anything. That armored car robbery in 011 last week? Directly under a POD camera. It didn't deter anything and didn't even provide decent footage of the event."

Not that SCC welcomed the ACLU report, mind you:
What worries us is the ACLU taking a very close interest in anything to do with the Pods. We figure it's only a matter of time before they file some sort of lawsuit against the Department over camera usage and some copper who was only trying to generate activity for some mission is dragged into Federal court and finds his house is on the line for civil rights violations.
But Chicago is about to elect a new mayor. There will be significant turnover in the Chicago City Council as well. Perhaps these new elected officials will want to take a new look at the cameras around our city and the ways in which they should be used. Certainly the cameras are looking at us.


Anonymous said...

We protect illegal aliens. We don't enforce Rule 137 or Rule 216. But when it comes to a $100 ticket for making a rolling stop on red at 5:00 in the morning when absolutely no one else is on the road, forget about it. You're busted. Traffic cameras are nothing but ATMs.

Jack Leyhane said...

I don't know what illegal aliens have to do with red light cameras. Careful and selective enforcement of Rule 137 has prevented the establishment of a cottage industry of sanctions-seeking lawyers in the state courts. And the Supreme Court struck a genuine blow for civility recently by limiting the number of requests that can be propounded under Rule 216. Moreover, Anon, coming to a complete stop at a red light is mandatory and easiest to do at 5:00 am when there is no possibility of some anxious driver rear-ending you. Nevertheless, I understand your concern that red light cameras are intended more as ATMs than as safety devices -- and there is apparently a growing body of evidence that supports your hunch in this regard. (I've linked to some of these in my posts.)