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What has happened to our privacy?

By Lisa S. Dean
web posted May 14, 2001

It seems that everywhere you go these days, you can't escape the cameras. It's as if the lives of every American citizen has become his own "Truman Show". Depending on where you live, the cameras snap a picture of you crossing the street, sitting at an intersection or driving along a highway.

But is anyone watching? In September of last year, 48,000 motorists traveling along a Maryland interstate received letters from the Maryland Mass Transit Administration which read as follows: "Your vehicle was seen traveling on southbound I-95 near I-195 on Wednesday, Sept. 27. Please provide the following information: Where were you going? Who was with you? What was the purpose of your trip?"

The 48,000 drivers who received the letter were not accused of any crime. The state was merely asking the questions for "information purposes" taking advantage of the new surveillance technology along the Maryland highways to conduct traffic surveys.

An automobile passes a soon-to-be operating traffic camera to monitor speeding, on May 8 on the George Washington Parkway near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Virginia Gov. James Gilmore are protesting the Interior Department pilot program to install such cameras at national parks across the country
An automobile passes a soon-to-be operating traffic camera to monitor speeding, on May 8 on the George Washington Parkway near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Virginia Gov. James Gilmore are protesting the Interior Department pilot program to install such cameras at national parks across the country

Some have questioned the constitutionality of these systems, whether they are cameras that issue tickets or monitoring by transit administrations of motorists on highways. One of those questioning is House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who, this week, sent a strong letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton which read, "I am concerned that this may be seen as a step toward a Big Brother surveillance state, where the government monitors the comings and goings of its citizens" and urged Norton to review these systems and "take the steps needed to protect the privacy of the millions of Americans who use" them.

Specifically, Armey shares the concerns of many Virginia residents who have to endure the National Park Service's traffic cameras that are situated along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a route that many commuters as well as tourists take every day. Because the speed limit along the Parkway is much lower than the normal traffic speed, the issuance of tickets through these cameras would make an effective revenue-generating source and this of course is what the National Park Service is counting on.

With the typical boldness of a federal agency, the National Park Service has established these cameras through a federal regulation, in complete disregard for the authority of the state governor, who opposes such law enforcement measures as well as without Congressional approval. In a letter to Majority Leader Armey last year, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore stated "While there is clearly the necessity to assure public safety through effective enforcement of traffic laws, the use of cameras, operating without human judgment reduces our system of justice to trial by machinery without the presumption of innocence."

And that statement is the heart of the matter. Law enforcement, in using technology to aid in enforcing the letter of the law, is changing the spirit behind those laws by not taking in to account that it's the job of police officers to issue citations to people and cameras only issue citations to objects, such as automobiles. Receiving a ticket in the mail from the county or the state with the accusation of a traffic violation, with a photograph enclosed of your vehicle's license plate, is certainly not enough evidence to prove that you're guilty of the crime for which you're being accused. In fact, by issuing tickets in this manner, the state is actually making the assumption that you were the driver of the vehicle. There's a problem in doing so. Traditional US law makes no assumptions. If it did, our court system would look radically different and the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" would mean nothing.

Both Governor Gilmore and Majority Leader Armey should be applauded for taking issue with the constitutionality of law enforcement's methods and their impact on the privacy of American citizens. While the possibilities of using technology to catch criminals are endless, it is critical for law enforcement, at all levels, to use it responsibility, and that means within constitutional bounds.

Lisa Dean is Vice President for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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