My husband and I have a running joke that every trip I make into Chicago with my car is going to cost us at least $50. This isn’t because parking is so expensive — although that is definitely true, as well — but because there are now red light cameras on almost every major corner. When I learned to drive, I learned that sometimes it was safer to speed up through a changing light if there was no one in front of you so as not to skid to a stop causing undue stress to your car and yourself. I’m not talking about breaking the law here, just making it through an intersection on a yellow light. However, the red light cameras now capture anyone crossing the intersection on a changing light, and the tickets are sent out automatically. Even worse, during the daytime you can’t see the camera flash, so you don’t even know it has caught you until you get the ticket in the mail.
That’s not the worst part about these ubiquitous police cameras. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) just released a report saying that the license plate image captures that the police are storing nationwide are now up to the millions. Sometimes the police keep these pictures for mere weeks before disposing of them, but some keep them for years or even indefinitely. Somewhere, there is a file of pictures of you driving, walking or doing whatever else you’re doing outside. This is stuff that would put even Orwell’s book “1984″ or the popular television series “The X Files” to shame.
How do the police departments justify keeping these images for so long? They say that it is to look out for suspicious vehicles, abducted children, or drug traffickers. Since most of us are probably not driving suspicious vehicles, kidnapping children or selling drugs, one could argue that the police don’t have probable cause to keep such records. However, there’s not much we can do at the moment. Our daily, personal lives are being tracked, photographed and catalogued and there is no law against it. And these cameras aren’t just on street corners; they are on bridges, police vehicles, police smartphones and buildings. With all of these cameras everywhere, taking pictures of everyone doing anything, it’s a wonder that criminals ever get away with their crimes.
While many argue that this is the price we pay for living in a digital world, the ACLU disagrees. Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the organization says, “There’s just a fundamental question of whether we’re going to live in a society where these dragnet surveillance systems become routine.” According to a National Public Radio report, license plate readers are less thorough than GPS tracking systems, but can still yield the same information: “revealing whether someone is frequenting a bar, joining a protest, getting medical or mental help, being unfaithful to a spouse and much more.”
If you don’t think the police have any right to know this information about you, you’re not alone. The ACLU is proposing that police discard photos of license plates not linked to any crime. However, it will probably be a long time before we see any move on this. The federal government is currently offering grants to local police departments to increase their surveillance technology in the name of homeland security, so this technology is not going away any time soon.
Hopefully, as more people become aware of what an invasive presence these cameras have in our lives, we’ll see some change in policy eventually.
Photo Credit: Jonathan McIntosh