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traffic camera
Here's Looking at You: A city technician watches the traffic flow from the main control room, where the images are relayed from video cameras mounted along roadways throughout the valley.

Photo by Kirk Schroeder

Cameras on Silicon Valley's roads will one day be as common as traffic lights. Think of it as one more chink in the armor of individual privacy--and smile, you're on candid camera.

By Michael Learmonth

IF BEN FRANKLIN were around today, he would probably make an addendum to his famous pronouncement that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. The founding father might also add "you will be watched" to his list of certainties.

Surveillance cameras have long been ubiquitous in banks, convenience stores, malls, office buildings, even buses. Now, surveillance technology is becoming increasingly popular on the nation's roads and highways as a means of controlling traffic patterns, collecting tolls and enforcing traffic laws. But while these "smart highway" technologies decrease traffic congestion and help catch red-light runners, they take another chink out of the armor of individual privacy and bring up the obvious question: Are Americans willing to live in a watched society to achieve the goal of a well-run society?

Video cameras are already an integral part of traffic management and enforcement in the Bay Area. Caltrans is setting up what is known as a Traffic Operations System to keep an eye on Bay Area traffic from a management center in Oakland. The system will begin with 180 surveillance cameras along such highways as 101, 280 and 880, with more likely to be added later.

Santa Clara County has secured partial funding for two video surveillance systems along the Lawrence and Capitol expressways for traffic control. The so-called Smart Corridor Project will manage traffic from Los Gatos to Milpitas using at least 50 cameras.

The City of San Jose has 18 surveillance cameras mounted in the downtown area near the San Jose Arena, controlled from a command post at the Department of Streets and Traffic.

"We will definitely be installing more cameras in other places throughout the city in the future," said Joe Garcia, a civil engineer with the Department of Streets and Traffic who helped develop the plan for arena traffic. "It's something I think is important, and it's something that will benefit the people of San Jose. Cameras are such a valuable tool for us to monitor traffic the way it should be monitored."

San Francisco's much-publicized cameras that photograph red-light runners are positioned at four high-traffic intersections. And though they have caught more than 1,000 runners this year, the cameras only photograph the front license plate, making it attractive for scofflaws to simply remove their front plate to dodge the $104 fine. In Oakland, 200 electronic devices are on line to catch speeders, generating 2,000 ticket a month. But Alameda County judges have thus far refused to issue warrants because they say there is no California law that permits tickets to be mailed to motorists.

The City of Campbell employs a mobile camera, mounted inside a marked Jeep Cherokee that is parked next to a different intersection every day. Tickets are sent to speeders by mail. San Jose has a similar pilot program in place, the Neighborhood Automated Speed Control Program (NASCOP), a roving van with a camera, that responds to neighborhood requests for additional traffic enforcement. Before implementing the program in a neighborhood, the Department of Streets and Traffic posts warning signs. The second phase of testing should begin next month.

But that's just the beginning. Last year Caltrans tested an automated toll-collecting booth on the Carquinez Bridge. "We are continuing to develop and perfect the system," said spokesman Colin Jones of Caltrans. Ultimately, when the system is in place, motorists will buy prepaid bridge toll cards that attach to the windshield for all Bay Area bridges. The card will be read and the bridge toll subtracted as the car passes through a tollbooth--no stopping necessary. A similar system is already in place in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in New York and on Highway 91, a privately owned toll road in Orange County.

But cameras collect more than the traffic conditions, and electronic tollbooths collect more than a toll. They can also collect information like the make and model of the car, when it passed, how fast it was going and, in some cases, who was inside.

traffic camera
Larry Moore, project coordinator for NASCOP, said Streets and Traffic has taken steps to ensure that the photos are not used for anything other than traffic enforcement.

"We don't show the photo to anyone but the person notified, and that's typically the registered owner of the vehicle," Moore said. "We will destroy the picture after the incident is resolved. Otherwise, we'd run out of room pretty quickly. Unless the person involved chose to show their spouse the photo, no one else would ever know it happened."

Moore pointed out that the cameras will not be hidden. Signs will be posted throughout the neighborhoods announcing that NASCOP may be in operation.

But critics ask if the loss of privacy is worth the long-term benefits of surveillance on the road. And on a deeper level, they wonder if Americans know how much of their privacy they have already lost.

"On the whole, people are not very aware of the specifics or the details of traffic-monitoring systems, and that's one of the reasons there hasn't been more of a political movement around these issues," said Phil Agre, who teaches communication at UC­San Diego and closely follows privacy issues. "But it's important to put this in a broader context. People are very concerned that we are living in a country that is increasingly under surveillance. The sense that people have of Big Brother invasiveness is what helps fuel right-wing popular movements, and it's a legitimate matter of concern."


Where the cameras are.


THE NERVE CENTER of San Jose's traffic monitoring system is Signal Central, a tastefully paneled room on the tenth floor of downtown's Horizon Towers building. There, a large screen and four smaller ones relay real-time video of critical intersections from 18 closed-circuit cameras mounted on 40-foot poles. Technicians control cameras with a toggle switch and a zoom lens. They can quickly pinpoint traffic problems and report them to officers on the scene.

The cameras are sophisticated enough to allow an observer to identify the make, model and color of a car but not the license plate number. Individuals are difficult to discern, but gender, hair and clothing color is usually recognizable.

Computers with vibrant graphics relay information on traffic flow from on-street detectors and sensors. Workers use the computers to synchronize traffic lights and program nine changeable message signs to help traffic flow in or out of the arena. Signal Central controls approximately 220 of the city's 650 signal lights. In time, 540 signals will be hooked up to the system.

The budget for the system is $26.8 million. San Jose will contribute less than $8 million to the total. The rest will come from county, state and federal funds. According to Streets and Traffic, the system will save 3.2 million gallons of gas and $10.7 million in vehicle operating costs annually.

"Seldom do we see a report with as high a list of benefits as this," former San Jose Councilwoman Shirley Lewis said after the council adopted the plan for a traffic-monitoring system in December 1988 and pledged an initial $12 million with a 9-0 vote. Caltrans gave the system an "Operations Innovation" award in 1994, and San Jose Mercury News writer Scott Herhold went so far as to dub it "a benevolent Big Brother" after observing technicians adroitly manage traffic after a Sharks game. If it cuts down on traffic congestion, most people in the Bay Area are all for it.

A more troubling issue is what happens if the cameras are used to monitor more than traffic. Although Streets and Traffic workers are not acting as law enforcement officials, one technician said they sometimes spot "suspicious characters" in arena parking lots or on nearby streets and notify officers on the scene.

"They spot people wandering around the parking lot aimlessly looking into cars when an event has started," said Sgt. Larry Campbell, a 26-year veteran of the San Jose Police Department who oversees onsite traffic enforcement around the arena. "We don't have a lot of crime out there to begin with, but the cameras have helped us to arrest people on occasion."

The SJPD is so enamored with the use of cameras as a law-enforcement tool that it had the Department of Streets and Traffic estimate the cost of the police department's mounting its own cameras for crowd surveillance in the city. For the moment, the SJPD has no plans to purchase its own cameras, but that could change.

"The future of cameras is expansion throughout the city for traffic control and law enforcement," Sgt. Campbell confirms. "The cameras have two specific purposes. They help us identify traffic problems and react to them. They also help us identify criminal activity. Even with an officer the camera's actually--well, I wouldn't say better--but it's a different type of tool. If you're a thief and you see an officer, you're either going to hide or stop your criminal activity. Right? But if the camera's there and you don't know it, you're going to get caught, aren't you? It's sneaky.

"There's a camera right there on the top of a pole at Park and Almaden in the middle of the festival area," he added.

While Joe Garcia of Streets and Traffic concedes that the possibility exists police might one day use Signal Central to monitor police cameras, he said he has absolutely no interest in using his cameras to monitor anything other than cars.

"We have our needs and objectives, and the police have theirs," Garcia said. "The perception that the cameras are being used to watch people is clearly a concern. That's why we have tried to emphasize that this is for traffic control only. We have a strict policy that we will not use the cameras to look into buildings or anything like that."

No one raised the issue of privacy when the City Council approved the plan nearly seven years ago.

"I don't remember any kind of discussion because we didn't view it as a system that could even identify an individual, so that's as far as we got on that issue, " said Santa Clara County Supervisor Jim Beall, who was a councilman in 1988 and head of the Transportation and Development Committee. "It was never intended to be used as a law-enforcement mechanism."

"We want to have equipment every half-mile on the freeway, and once we put it in, we can drive all kinds of things," said Jim Spinello, a senior traffic engineer with Caltrans. "We're putting in the infrastructure to handle any technological innovation."

ONE OF THE BIGGEST concerns with "smart highways" is the question of what happens to all the information gathered on drivers. The details of an individual's day could be pieced together with data on where they drove, paid tolls or took a detour. Insurance companies could raise rates because a driver was frequenting a high-risk section of town. A divorce lawyer might be able to get a court order to monitor a spouse suspected of infidelity. Or a particular act of infidelity might be captured on tape that would be considered a public record. Private companies could use the information to develop mailing lists of drivers who fit certain profiles and may be likely to buy their products.

In San Jose, Streets and Traffic doesn't normally make tapes of video from surveillance cameras. On occasion, big events are recorded so engineers can study traffic patterns. Although no one has ever requested copies of the tape, City Attorney Joan Gallo said they are considered records available to the public. Caltrans engineer Spinello said there are currently no plans to make tapes from cameras in the Bay Area, but the policy could change.

"There is abundant concern that once information is collected, it will be diverted to purposes that it shouldn't be used for," cautions UC­San Diego's Phil Agre. "In just about every other instance where personal information has been gathered by the government, that has been the case."

One simple solution is to make the information gathered anonymous. Statistics can be gathered without keeping information on specific cars. Instead of using specific account numbers to pay tolls, for example, a radio could transmit "digital cash" using a smart card much like the telephone cards used in Europe.

"If the system is properly implemented so that everything is anonymous, then there is really nothing very important to worry about," Agre said. "However, that's an enormous if, and it's not at all clear that is going to happen. There's a tremendous momentum behind technical methods based on capturing individually identifiable information."

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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