Wednesday, May 9, 2001

To get a bad case of the creeps, simply drive a few miles over the posted speed limit on Northern Virginias scenic George Washington Parkway. A week or so later, a present will arrive for you in the mail: a ticket for speeding issued courtesy of photo radar traps set up by the National Park Service (NPS), a federal agency which has jurisdiction over the parkway.

The photo radar was set up last year, very quietly, as part of a demonstration project run jointly by the NPS and Lockheed Martin IMS, in return for a percentage of the fees generated by the fleecing of hapless motorists.

All of this has been done without congressional or local approval — and if not strangled in the crib, will surely grow to become, in time, the means by which Big Brother constantly watches us on and off the road.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey has been trying to get the attention of Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, who is in a position to yank the chain of the NPS. As a conservative Republican, Mrs. Norton also ought to have an instinctive fear and loathing of this kind of government snooping — especially when it´s done as part of a for-profit enterprise in cahoots with a private company. Lockheed Martin, which also contracts its photo radar traps with local governments in the Washington region, stands to make billions off motorists if photo radar becomes commonplace across the country.

Describing this business as a “significant privacy concern for millions of Americans” in a letter to Mrs. Norton, the majority leader added that while he is “committed to doing what it takes to make our roads safer,” he is nonetheless opposed to doing so “at the cost of our fundamental rights” — such as the right to confront one´s accuser in court and enjoy due process of law. With photo radar, there is no due process. A ticket is simply mailed to you via an automated process. And “you can´t argue your case to a machine,” as Mr. Armey pointed out.

In addition, the action taken by NPS to set up photo radar is probably not legal in and of itself. Executive Order 12866 requires review by the federal Office of Management and Budget of any proposals that “raise novel legal or policy issues” and certainly the use of photo radar/automated ticket machinery qualifies under that definition.

More fundamental, though, are entirely legitimate worries about privacy. “I am concerned,” wrote Mr. Armey in his letter, “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.” Well, the fact is that photo radar does indeed do precisely that, and the public has every reason to be concerned.

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