The revelation during the hunt for the Marathon Bombers of how totally we are all tracked by the rapidly expanding web of electronic systems, and Edward Snowden’s disclosure of how easily it is for government’s security agencies to tap into those data streams, should change the nature of the comparatively trivial debate about installing red-light violation cameras at dangerous intersections. But it has also revealed a generation fault line in people’s perceptions about the trade-offs involved.
Red light violation cameras, already installed in numerous US cities, clearly reduce violations. Once the light turns red a sensor notices if any cars are in the intersection and reads the offender’s license plate, triggering an automate moving violation ticket being sent to the owner of the car – who can protest if s/he can prove someone else was driving at the time (except in New York, where the ticket is treated like a parking violation and the owner is legally responsible for the actions of anyone s/he has allowed to use the vehicle).
There are reports of jurisdictions setting the yellow light interval extremely short in order to generate revenue, although lengthening the yellow to give extra time is much more common. And there are stories that fearful motorists jam on their brakes when the light turns, increasing the chances of getting hit by the unsuspecting following driver – although it is possible that these people were going too fast or close in the first place. And there are cases of camera malfunction.
But these seem to be isolated exceptions – the overwhelming impact of the cameras is to reduce violations, slow traffic, and lower the accident rates. And to give the police a new source of information about the location of individuals’ cars – not just when they run a light but, potentially, should their software be secretly changed and the supposed “civil liberty safeguards” ignored, for everyone passing through the intersection. Despite this danger, as readers of this blog know, I am (warily) in favor of their installation – the increased safety seems to outweigh the potential civil rights infringements.
(Note: this discussion about red light violation cameras does NOT include police surveillance cameras that monitor public spaces or political/cultural events, which raise a different and much more troublesome set of issues.)
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
Like many other people, I’ve had numerous recent conversations about data, privacy, and civil liberties. Nearly everyone is favor of doing whatever is necessary to prevent bombings and terrorism. No one wants to risk another 9/11 – although there is some debate about the ability of the government to do the job in less intrusive ways. What’s fascinating is how quickly these discussions show that people under 40, and definitely those under 35, seem totally at ease with the idea that information about themselves is floating around. In general, it is us older folks who seem the most concerned.
Partly, I assume, younger people have simply grown up in a digital world structured around data sharing. Not just about their public action (walking down the street or attending a concert), or even their private social actions (at a party or on a group trip), but even of their personal details (birthday, home address, job history, family connections). Years ago, during my High Tech days, I was on the national Board of a group called Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). This was so long ago – 15 or so years – that the World Wide Web was just beginning to be invented and absolutely no one foresaw the tsunami of commercialization that would almost immediately transform the Internet from a special space to an interactive mall. However, even then CPSR understood that data sharing was built into the very structure of the Internet and we were warning that unless privacy controls were integrated into every layer of the system, there would quickly be no way to protect data security. We lost that fight, rather overwhelmingly, and the business dynamics of cyber space have normalized an open-data version of reality for the “digital natives.”
WHO DEFINES THE ENEMY?
The other reason for the generation divide, I believe, is that younger people have not lived through a period of time when they were the enemy. They don’t remember Nixon’s “enemies list” and the resulting IRS reviews and wire taps, or the FBI’s harassment of anti-war and civil rights activists much less its murderous “cointelpro” program, or the witch-hunting blacklists against the labor movement and their progressive supporters. Those of us who were around back then, who were active in protest groups and movements have no doubt that if any of the currently available tools had been available back then, they would have been used against us – to keep us under surveillance, to facilitate the work of provocateurs trying to get our groups to do stupid things, to make getting jobs more difficult, to disrupt our personal lives, and perhaps to set up for court cases, jail time, or physical injury. Those of us who were there know that these types of things happened – and probably still happen — and have little confidence that the new tools and powers will be only used against the “real” terrorists that we all agree should be stopped.
It is, as we should all recognize, a balance. And when it comes to preventing injuries at intersections, I tilt towards safety.
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