Use of Traffic Enforcement Cameras as a Contemporary form of Urban Surveillance

Problem Statement

Melbourne, Australia has one of the most advanced crime surveillance network in the world. This system now includes the use of traffic enforcement cameras within the urban environment. Apart from observing the usual stream of traffic, these cameras now double as an important crime prevention tool in a rapidly developing environment.  Nevertheless, the extensive use of traffic enforcement cameras has been critiqued as a “Big-Brother’ surveillance tactic employed by police and government to infringe upon the privacy of citizens.

Evidence

The introduction and integration of traffic enforcement cameras in Melbourne was initially part of the larger Australian road speed limit enforcement strategy.  According to Gilbert, Sines and Bell (2016), traffic enforcement cameras currently serve a secondary role in urban environments where they have emerged as an invaluable surveillance tool for state apparatus (p.56). This new urban environment currently contends with a myriad of security challenges that have prompted this form of surveillance to enhance efforts aimed at improving security within urban spaces such as Melbourne. Populations residing in urban environments represent an at-risk population owing to a rising spate in crime (Kumar, 2011). Traffic enforcement cameras represent an essential surveillance tool due to their strategic positioning when seeking to fulfill its original objective of ensuring drives follow adhere to rules and regulations.

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Traffic enforcement cameras are currently regarded as an effective tool in the preventing and managing crime while concurrently assessing public traffic but have recently courted controversy regarding privacy. The current urban environment represents a complex structure requiring the application of fresh techniques to counter criminal activity. Cities are regarded as intricate “growth machines” incorporating the public, council departments, private security organizations and consortia City Center Managers all seeking to thrive within the urban environment. Traffic enforcement cameras represent a fundamental development the sphere of crime prevention due to their ability to monitor traffic and the public in real-time (Guide to traffic engineering practice, 2017).  Hi-tech advances now incorporate facial-recognition technology and ability to record large amounts of visual data which can then be reviewed by security experts to assess emerging threats. It is now possible to monitor large populations in major cities such as Melbourne which ultimately allows law enforcement agencies to react swiftly in case of an emergency. Police officers particularly benefit from the implementation of traffic enforcement cameras since enables the remote monitoring of crime hotspots and the identification of suspects. Furthermore, traffic enforcement cameras also function as a repository of visual evidence crucial during prosecution.

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Although traffic enforcement cameras and closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) seem to serve similar goals, several glaring differences exist between the two. While the urban space is littered with CCTV cameras, traffic enforcement cameras are only located in select strategic locations within the urban space with the original purpose of monitoring traffic within the urban space. The main intention of installing CCTV cameras within the urban environment in Australia was to address security concerns by increasing the level of surveillance in public and private spaces within the larger urban environment (Police, 2020). Traffic enforcement cameras monitor motorists on public highway to ensure adherence to the traffic code and respond to emergencies. The integration of Traffic enforcement cameras and CCTV cameras has far-reaching social and policy implications since they affect digital surveillance capabilities within the urban environment.

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Traffic enforcement cameras are now a common feature of public highways in a bid to monitor traffic in select localities. They ensure that drivers are aware of this type of surveillance, therefore, following road safety guidelines. Additionally, traffic enforcement cameras have overthrown the old exemplar and heralded a new era in contemporary society where law enforcement agencies have the capability of recording traffic and reviewing videos for any overlooked violation. Full implementation of traffic enforcement cameras in Melbourne eliminates the urban spatiality phenomenon by implementing covert surveillance on the general population using a system whose original objective was to review public traffic. Traffic enforcement cameras now play a supplementary role in law enforcement where they detect potential offenders and suitable targets for criminal activities.Apart from managing public transportation, traffic enforcement cameras now play a crucial role in monitoring crime within the urban space. Illegal activities such as panhandling by homeless individuals can now be identified to prevent road accidents typically occasioned by such deeds. For instance, police in Melbourne responded to a call by operators within the traffic headquarters of homeless individuals who seemed to be nuisance within an intersection. This resulted in the arrest of the said individuals, in addition to revealing their activities dabbling in the sale and distribution of heroin.

Issues

            An assorted are involved in the implementation of traffic enforcement cameras and the pressing issues that emerge from their application. The large-scale application of traffic enforcement cameras in Australia has created a niche market for enterprising agencies seeking to partner with law enforcement agencies in detecting and preventing crime. The Victorian government currently partners with Redflex holdings to fulfill its objective of installing traffic enforcement cameras in all public highways in Melbourne and its environs (Mccahill, 2015). However, security pundits are skeptical of this move and regard it as a merely a business venture with the aim of benefitting specific individuals within this arrangement. Traffic enforcement cameras also pose a threat to the privacy through the systematic monitoring and recording of visual data which is then stored in law enforcement databases. It is worth noting that these cameras are use the automated surveillance paradigm and capture the bodily movements of unsuspecting individuals, violating their right to privacy. Furthermore individuals sitting or standing for an extended period may be marked as persons of interests after setting off the automatically-triggered alarms within the control center and subjected to unwarranted scrutiny. Law enforcement agencies in Melbourne have successfully applied traffic enforcement cameras in assessing the behavior of motorists and pedestrians for public safety, in addition to developing a model for predicting safety at specific locations.

            Traffic enforcement cameras employ controversial surveillance tactics which raises several privacy concerns. For instance, the so-called “red-light cameras” consist of a sophisticated piece of equipment with the ability to photograph the license plates of vehicles suspected to have flouted traffic regulations (Petersen, 2012). This information is then used to identify the car’s owner and their physical address, before proceeding to mail a traffic ticket. Although this process seems structured and economical, it raises several fundamental privacy issues which are yet to be addressed.  Citations and tickets are mailed to the address of the individual documented as the car’s owner as per the records. The problem with this approach is that the individual whose name the number plates are under may not necessarily be the one driving the car. Apart from violating individual’s right to privacy, they are also forced to accept the ticket and prove beyond any reasonable doubt they were not driving the car. They are essentially considered guilty until proven innocent.  Furthermore, the fidelity and accuracy of traffic enforcement has been continually questioned since they are installed by contractors motivated by the financial incentive. It is widely speculated that unscrupulous contractors game the ticketing system which eventually identifies a high number of traffic violations, resulting in an increase in ticket revenue (Regazzoni, Fabri and Vernazza, 2012). Rather than aiming to increase traffic safety, traffic enforcement cameras are now, inadvertently, harnessed to violate the privacy of citizens to maximize ticket revenue.

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            Moreover, concern is mounting among privacy advocate who suspect that the data collected will be used to achieve ulterior motives other than tracking reckless driving.  The number of individuals with access to private information gathered by traffic enforcement cameras is also unclear. Government agencies and private-industry contractors are capable of storing the information indefinitely in their ever-expanding database prone to privacy abuses (Utilization and impacts of automated traffic enforcement, 2010). These same systems can also be used to invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens. The application of traffic enforcement cameras may result in unimpeachable fairness. There the information gathered may eventually ends up being used for unauthorized purposes which poses a threat to individual’s discretion. Furthermore, their placement in public areas within the urban landscape and may very well be regarded as a form of unauthorized search and seizure.

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 The intrusive nature of the cameras also means that they can be used by rogue government officials to track political enemies for other reasons other than national security. Any information gathered regarding their movements may be used to coerce and control them as ammunition for blackmail. Inter-department communication system can also be abused in this particular scenario and the information stored as violation of individual’s fundamental rights.  Although the introduction of body-worn cameras is an innovative idea, it is superlative only for experimental purposes. The conundrum that criminology pundits still contend with is whether the cameras will be used for traffic safety or the photographing of unsuspecting drivers whose images are then stored in an unsanctioned database. From a theoretical stand point, traffic enforcement cameras represent an innovative technology capable of maintaining road safety, identifying street criminals. However, they are prone to abuse by officials and may ultimately result in a slippery slope with regard to confidentiality where citizens readily accept increased surveillance. This risk of abuse outweighs the possible benefits and the prime reason why the large scale implementation of traffic enforcement cameras should be reviewed.

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Recommendations

  1. The introduction of clear guidelines to define the use and implementation of traffic enforcement cameras. A set of clear principles will ensure that surveillance during a given point in time is warranted to minimize the possibility of privacy transgressions while providing a definite scope of practice.
  2.  Traffic enforcement cameras for surveillance should only be deployed after establishing a pressing and immediate need. This will ensure that surveillance is no conducted in public spaces and only done when concrete evidence has been presented to address an emerging risk.
  3. Surveillance using traffic enforcement cameras should only be conducted after exhausting all other alternatives that are less privacy-invasive. By so doing, it will become a last resort and reduce incidence of surveillance within the urban public environment.
  4. Government actors and private contractors should address privacy issues related the implementation of traffic enforcement cameras. This will allow for a thorough Privacy Impact Assessment to be conducted by all relevant bodies to ascertain the level of inference posed by this particular technology.  
  5. Public consultation should also be conducted before deciding to proceed with the large-scale adoption of surveillance using traffic enforcement cameras. These consultation are instrumental in ensuring that relevant stakeholders present their opinions regarding the introduction of this technology and possible concerns.
  6. The application of traffic enforcement cameras should also be consistent with the prevailing privacy laws. Any surveillance activity conducted should strictly adhere to applicable laws and within the confines of human rights and freedoms.
  7. The implementation of traffic enforcement cameras for surveillance should be conducted in a style that takes all privacy issues into consideration. It should be designed to minimize privacy intrusion by limiting their application to peak periods such as public festivals where surveillance is of the utmost importance.
  8. The public should also be informed why the traffic enforcement cameras are being implemented and the need for increased surveillance. This will ensure that citizens become part of the safety initiative and participate fully when required to provide crucial information.
  9. Law enforcement agencies should also apply fair information practices when dealing with private data. They should minimize the collection of private and personal information during surveillance to ensure that infractions are not committed. The release of such information should also be documented to ensure it does not fall to the wrong hands.
  10. Officials manning traffic enforcement cameras should also discourage excessive intrusion by their colleagues. Cameras should not be aimed at adjoining locations such as window buildings and change rooms where there is a heightened expectation for privacy.
  11. The security of the data collected should also be assured. System controllers should ensure that the images and videos capture are secured in an encrypted database where individuals with a specific level of clearance can access them. Furthermore, they should only be accessed on a need-to-know basis.
  12. The public should also be allowed to access personal information gathered by security agencies. This ensures that affected individuals gain an understanding of the nature of the information stored in the database and their privacy status.
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