Traffic cameras beg the question: How much technology is too much?

With the allure of high-tech public infrastructure and advanced security systems also comes the fear of personal encroachment. To date, Claremont has 36 stationary and 3 mobile  Automated License Plate Reader cameras tracking the license plates of law-abiding citizens and criminals to the tune of 3600 images per minute, according to a recent presentation by Lieutenant Mike Ciszek.

“It’s just one more tool to help us,” Mr. Ciszek told Active Claremont members in an earlier presentation. “Criminals are getting more advanced technologically, and we have to try and catch up. We are always playing catchup to stay abreast of what is going on.”

Others remain unconvinced.

“The cameras constitute an unreasonable search of our persons,” asserted Douglas Lyon in a recent letter to the COURIER, an opinion echoed in several inquiries the newspaper received over the last week. “In this post 9/11 world, with its newfound rationalizations for ‘security’ systems of all imaginable sorts, we must constantly remind ourselves that ‘security’ must be directed to impair the criminally-intended and not to harass and intrude upon the honest and law-abiding.”

While Claremont uses ALPR cameras to track vehicles with lost or stolen plates and those linked with wanted persons, Amber Alerts or tagged as BOLO (“Be on the Look Out”), it should also be noted this is not the limit of these cameras’ capabilities. ALPR cameras—which use optical character recognition to identify license plates—do have the capability to track down more than just vehicles listed as stolen. The latest software allows police to track down cars linked with unlicensed drivers or those with delinquencies on speeding tickets.

In a recent interview, Claremont Chief Paul Cooper acknowledged that Claremont’s system does have this capability.

“You steer the system,” explained Chief Cooper of the way the ALPR program works. The police tell the system exactly what they want to be alerted of and while some cities ask to be alerted about scofflaw violations such as parking ticket delinquencies, Claremont’s system is not currently set to do so. And Chief Cooper says there are no plans to use the cameras beyond what they are currently being employed for.

“There is no desire to expand to parking citation,” he said, also adding that the ALPR system cannot be used for speed enforcement.   

While the city does not have any plans to scale back on the cameras it currently employs, Chief Cooper says steps are being taken to ensure the system is not abused. Among such steps is a Video Management Policy, adopted by the city when the ALPR cameras were first put in place in January 2011.

“The officers cannot get any live feed in their cars. They can go back and look at video that has been archived after the fact,” Chief Cooper said.

The live feed is monitored by officers in dispatch. Live video feed cannot be accessed in the patrol cars, he says, adding that officers who go into dispatch to watch video footage must log onto the system to do so, and there is always more than one person in dispatch monitoring activity.  

While acknowledging “Big Brother” fears, Chief Cooper believes the ALPR cameras are actually taking some of the problems out of the system.

“The benefits seen far outway the concerns of the few that this is Big Brother and encroaches upon their rights,” Chief Cooper said.

Will use of cameras continue to grow?

Along with fear over what exactly the cameras capture is the concern that the cameras infringe upon the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens. ALPR cameras are running 24 hours a day, capturing all license plates of cars passing by at up to 160 miles per hour.

In reaction to the growing popularity of this camera system, which employs thousands of cameras across the nation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a nationwide campaign over the summer to find out more about ALPR, which they referred to as a device that might be “fundamentally threatening our freedom on the open road.”

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that in 10 years there will be ALPRs just about everywhere, making detailed records of every driver’s every movement, and storing it for who knows how long,” wrote Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project in July.

While the city of Claremont may have adopted its own policy for camera regulation, there is no state statute regulating ALPR camera use. And the city must still stand by Los Angeles County’s requirement that all footage gathered by the cameras, of citizens who are law-abiding or not, be archived for 2 years.

The only 2 states with statutes on ALPR are New Hampshire and Maine, according to a study by the ACLU. In Maine, police are only allowed to keep data up to 21 days, giving just enough time for investigators to get the information they need to solve cases before it is deleted. Privacy advocates hope to see stricter laws like Maine’s enforced nationwide.

“We need to convince the nation and our lawmakers to take action on this serious threat to our liberty,” Ms. Crockford writes.

Professor William Cuddihy—whose dissertation at Claremont Graduate University focuses on the Fourth Amendment—acknowledges that extensive legislation is needed in order to provide a balance between stopping crime and preventing abuse. However, he asserts one of the country’s biggest problems remains the public’s inability to ask the right, probing questions to ensure the system isn’t abused.

“Most of my students couldn’t tell you the difference between the Fourth Amendment and the Beatles, and ignorance aids government surveillance,” Mr. Cuddihy said, making sure to note that it isn’t just the government at work. The Claremont Colleges, for example, have their own intricate camera system independent of Claremont police.

“The belief is that when you step out in public, you forfeit your rights,” Mr. Cuddihy continued. “Few people realize private corporations can find just as much surveillance.”

—Beth Hartnett


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