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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Harrop: Cameras watch public spaces, and that’s OK

By Froma Harrop
Published: June 24, 2024, 6:01am

I have before me a “traffic summons” from my city’s police department. It features three pictures, two of the back of my car and a close-up of the license plate.

“Please take notice,” it reads, “that the vehicle described and pictured herein was detected and recorded by an automated school zone speed monitoring system as exceeding the lawful speed limit.”

It added, in my words, send us $50, and we will forget about the whole thing. The citation is not considered a “moving violation,” and therefore it will not affect your insurance rate.

Cameras are everywhere. They capture license plates of every driver on the roads. They are in stores, recording the activities of both shoppers and shoplifters. In New York City, for example, they are all over the subway system, which is why people who commit gruesome crimes there are now quickly apprehended.

Some civil libertarians complain that these cameras invade people’s privacy. When my city started installing them, I had a tense conversation with a colleague who objected to the cameras as a form of government surveillance. I asked him: If the city could afford to place a police officer at every intersection, and one of them saw someone fly past a red light and went after him, would he consider that action an invasion of the driver’s privacy?

The Chicago Tribune has reported stories of how “automated license plate recognition” has helped police solve heinous crimes. A teen accused of fatally shooting a young mother was caught driving a stolen car. A man wanted for murder was traced through license plate cameras. And police tracked down the vehicle of a man who had abducted a woman.

Nonetheless, privacy advocates have filed suit in Illinois, claiming that the cameras violate the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search. “This system has brought Big Brother to Illinois,” Stephanie Scholl told The Tribune.

Big Brother is a reference to “1984,” George Orwell’s dystopian novel imagining a repressive future of government surveillance.

We should not expect privacy on public roads or other public spaces. Any human can be there, so why can’t a camera? Some privacy advocates argue that police stalking ex-wives might misuse the system by tracing their plates. Laws are in place forbidding such activity.

Britain has CCTV cameras all over the place. Some civil liberty advocates told a parliamentary committee that terror attacks are a “price worth paying” to ensure the secret service does not conduct mass surveillance. That didn’t go over so well with the public.

Back to my summons. It said I was going 31 mph in a 20-mph zone. The summons arrived in the mail long after my infraction. I drive on that street often and don’t remember why I was there that day. But I didn’t question the facts on the summons. I was guilty as charged and therefore obliged to pay up. Which I did.

But here is where cameras made a seriously important difference. A man armed with a machete recently raped a 13-year-old girl in a Queens, N.Y., park. The early sketches based on the victim’s description didn’t help much. But when the police released surveillance photos, neighbors quickly recognized the rapist and called 911. He is now off the streets.

Cameras watch our public spaces, and that should be OK.