- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington’s speed and red-light cameras, once ostensibly installed for safety, have a new purpose. They’re watching you.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown told The Washington Times in a newsmaker interview Monday that he was glad to have automated ticketing machines deployed throughout the District on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. “You may see it as traffic cameras,” Mr. Brown said. “I see it as an ability to look at what’s going on in the District of Columbia - especially through this weekend trying to find vehicles and trucks that are where they shouldn’t be on these main roads and bridges… . It really hit me this weekend.”

While mobile photo-radar vans and intersection cameras are known for their blinding flash when issuing citations, the devices don’t just take Polaroid-style snapshots. They’re rolling digital video 24-hours a day. The District’s Arizona-based camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions (ATS), announced what the machines could do in 2008: “ATS’ new system will have the capability of automatically recognizing license plates and will be able to send immediate alerts to public-safety personnel on the ground. These features can be used to support Amber Alert notifications and locate wanted and stolen vehicles.”

As much as anyone would like only the bad guys to be photographed, it doesn’t work that way. Each passing vehicle must be scanned, identified and processed, allowing the robotic cameras stationed throughout the city to put a virtual history of where anyone has been at any given time at the fingertips of the D.C. government. The potential for abuse is obvious.

Mr. Brown favors use of such power only on special occasions, “not just surveillance for the sake of surveillance - because I wouldn’t be for that. But I think this weekend showed, my goodness, it was a very important weekend that was taking place in this country. Imagine if they had found something that shouldn’t be there and saved many lives. To me, that’s more important than anything.”

That’s the problem with allowing the infrastructure of the surveillance state to be put in place. Any limitations dissolve over time. What once was a simple system meant to tax Virginia and Maryland commuters has become a full-fledged Big Brother spy network. Beginning Oct. 1, the District will begin tracking and ticketing drivers at 19 new locations throughout the city.

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