Nassau County’s report on its red light camera program looks like a step forward for safety. Who knows?
Officials in automated camera communities around the state cherry-pick the same kinds of statistics as if they were reading from a script, and they probably are (the official Nassau County “Red Light Cameras” web page links to infomercial-style videos produced by ATS, they county’s camera vendor). Nassau County’s accident statistics show a reduction in certain types of accidents at 49 of the first 57 locations in 2013, but there is a crucial wider picture. The cameras seem to have been a disaster in some counties, suggesting there are factors in play that aren’t obvious and merit serious study.
Some municipalities have been slow or uncooperative in releasing data, and the details provided are inconsistent. While New York’s AAA’s initial reports last year praised Nassau County for being relatively forthcoming with data, it also criticized the county for keeping cameras at profitable locations where accidents or injuries have risen.
The cameras aren’t going away. Angry residents successfully pressured county officials into dropping the speed camera ticketing program, but the cameras are still there. Eventually, you will be tracked between digital checkpoints, and written up if a theoretical maximum speed is exceeded; this “SPECS” system is deployed on some United Kingdom motorways.
The cameras are in place; just pick the software vendor. Plate recognition? Biometric facial recognition? Check current grants from DOJ, DHS, DOD or the state. A whole new industry has figured out how to monetize security.
Nassau County has been networking thousands of cameras on public and private property, based on the “Ring of Steel” of thousands of cameras covering Lower Manhattan. A separate program (“VCORE”) links together schools, hospitals and thousands of cameras, readers and “shotspot” sensors that detect gunfire sounds, ostensibly so county police can monitor events in real time if there is “an active shooter situation.”
Nassau and Suffolk are among the state’s nine suburban counties known to actively collect (cameras on cruisers) license plate numbers and geographic information, stored on computer servers and accessible to local, state and federal law enforcement. In 2007 and 2008, the infant program helped locate 64 stolen cars, 131 stolen license plates and 166 people wanted by law enforcement. Then they stopped telling us. There is a lack of consistent standards for storage, time limits, daily access and use of digital data.
So what? Unregulated private companies have even more data, and their biggest customers include law enforcement agencies supplementing their own collections, or circumventing local regulations requiring periodic purges of bystander plate data.
Hundreds of America’s largest malls have mounted automatic license plate readers at entrances and exits, or send out security teams to drive up and down aisles scanning cars. The data is usually outsourced for analysis of zip code and destination data. The Destiny USA mall in Syracuse insists they do this only for marketing purposes and absolutely not for security. The massive Mall of America in Minnesota insists they only do this for security purposes and not for marketing.
The repossession industry has been revolutionized by license plate recognition, and a silent army of repo men move through every city and suburb with cameras provided by data companies, capturing up to 100 plates a minute. The largest private license plate database has over 2 billion scans, creating an amazing picture of where you go, what you do, even who you are with. The data is repackaged and resold over and over, to insurers, banks, prospective employers and law enforcement.
Maybe this is the only way to go, the only real choice. If so, just tell us, so that we all understand the new way, the new rules of a society without privacy.
Michael Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has worked in state
and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.