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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The ethics of traffic cameras

I haven't posted anything for a while. I transferred to a new position at a sister company two months ago and I've been working very long hours.

Excuses, excuses.

Anyway, there's a little Ohio town that is in hot water for their traffic cameras that are racking big revenues for the town and upsetting people who live or travel through it.

Here's how advocates of the surveillance cameras supported the program in an AP story on Yahoo:
Supporters of camera enforcement say they stretch law enforcement resources, and they usually result in safer driving and thus save lives.
Fair enough. But things can stretch resources and save lives and be wrong to do just the same. This is consequentialism: Ethics determined by the effect achieved. Or, the end justifies the means. It has to be good in itself to photograph all drivers as they pass by a certain point and to store and use that data in a general sense, in order to do that.

I think traffic cams are just one more piece of evidence that we may be living in a totalitarian society. They are an invasion of privacy and a hindrance to freedom of movement and of association.

It is another piece of the puzzle that includes government surveillance of phone records, internet usage, economic transactions done electronically (buying with your debit or credit card, for instance). Yeah, the data are out there, and surveiling it saves lives and helps our fearless leaders thwart terrorist plots.

But it is still an invasion of privacy as far as I can tell, and just something that the government has no business knowing. Because the cameras record the license plates of everyone who comes by, but the system sends out tickets only to drivers who are speeding.

Now, if the cameras remain off unless an infraction occurs, and if there is sufficient warning that they are in use, and that the drivers are alerted that they are speeding and have a chance to slow down before hitting the photo check point, and that there is a tolerance for slight infractions - and I repeat, that the cameras do nothing if there is no infraction - then that might be ok.

Like for instance, an overpass on a highway might have speed limit signs facing oncoming traffic, a "YOUR SPEED" readout for each lane, and a sign saying "SPEEDERS WILL BE PHOTOGRAPHED" and the cameras are on the other side of the overpass to capture the back license plates of speeders only. That sort of thing might work for me.

There's a lot going on out in the world. The Supreme Court issued some interesting rulings. There's been an issue with a girl's lung transplant. The IRS and the NSA are in hot water. And I talk about traffic cams.

All in due time.

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