Jewish World Review July 10, 2001 / 19 Tamuz, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Big Brother is watching you, fining you -- "BIG BROTHER is watching you," wrote George Orwell in his classic novel "1984." Some people thought he sounded like an alarmist when his described a privacy-free world. These days, his imagination looks modest. Increasingly, Big Brother is us.

In today's cities, cameras are watching us everywhere.

The District of Columbia, for example, has been raking in revenue since it mounted 39 cameras at busy intersections to catch motorists who run red lights.

Since 1999, it has been one of 50 cities using the cameras, which began in England, France and other European countries eager to catch speeders or red-light runners. The camera program has reduced infractions and raked in more than $9 million in fines in the past year alone, the District says.

Now the District has upped the ante. Just before Independence Day, it announced that six mobile radar cameras in unmarked police cars would be catching speeders at select locations.

The nation's capital is not alone. Tampa's Ybor entertainment district now has 36 mounted cameras that can capture images of up to eight people at a time and compare them with a computer database of facial features of people wanted on active warrants. Orwell, you didn't know the half of it.

This 24-hour glass-eyed scrutiny has not come as the result of a war, as it did in Orwell's world, but at our own insistence.

Is this a good thing? Some people aren't so sure.

Civil libertarians argue that Tampa's computerized street cameras have the effect of putting you, me, and everyone else into a virtual police lineup without our consent.

On the other hand, officials assure us that the cameras do nothing more than extend what any police officer does when he or she routinely eyeballs street crowds for possible suspects.

San Diego officials have been similarly sanguine about their traffic cameras, despite a lawsuit by 290 ticketed motorists. Among other charges, lawyers for the angry drivers say Lockheed Martin IMS, the company that operates the cameras, deliberately chose intersections that had unusually short yellow-light cycles and other factors that might encourage more cars to trigger the cameras.

The company denies such practices, but the suit has cast enough doubt on the fairness of the practice that the city turned off its automated cameras in mid-June, pending further investigations. A judge later threw out almost all of the unresolved traffic tickets that the cameras had generated. House Majority Leader Dick Armey is troubled enough by the camera proliferation to take them on in a major crusade. One of his first targets is a new program by the Department of the Interior to place speed cameras on its 5,000 miles of roads.

Call me paranoid, but I suspect that privacy in public spaces will continue to dwindle. In an age of terrorism and maniacal street violence, we, the public, are willing to put up with a variety of intrusions into our privacy, if it makes us feel safer.

Nevertheless, we should remember how Ontario, Canada's largest province, dumped radar speed cameras in 1995 after Premier Mike Harris called them "a government cash grab."

With local governments looking for new revenue sources in this anti-tax era, we should all look with wariness on a system that provides big incentives to police and contractors who can write the most citations and fines for minor offenses.

Big Brother doesn't always come with a big bang. Sometimes he comes with little fingers dipping into your wallet.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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