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Elmira
Monday, January 27, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Photo radar is proof governments don’t care about civil rights

The region’s plan to roll out photo radar is symbolic of what ails government and society in general.

An overstatement for something that proponents will say protects children? Not at all.

Essentially, the proposal to introduce photo radar in school zones is a cash grab masquerading as a public relations exercise. We know that by asking a simple question: what problem does this solve? There haven’t been scores of deaths, injuries and collisions in school zones, so that’s not the problem in question, despite what will be repeated appeals to safety. Speeding? Sure, that occurs, though the region itself will acknowledge the calls it receives from the public are often due to perceptions of speeding, not the reality of the situation, as actual traffic monitoring typically reveals.

The region’s existing red-light cameras have been shown to cause collisions, though whether they deter drivers from running red lights – as opposed to beating yellows – is another matter. Certainly other jurisdictions have shown the cameras to be flawed, open to corruption and, yes, simply money grabs.

The cameras are put in place because they exist. Once installed, the revenue they generate becomes part of the budgeting process, and must be maintained and increased to pour money into municipal coffers – hardly a reason to support them, unless you’re a bureaucrat looking for alternatives to extract more from the already overburdened public.

More widely, photo radar being deployed because the technology exists is symptomatic of a wider trend in which we’re sliding into a police state where freedom and privacy are stolen from the public because the tools are available, there are profits to be made, officials don’t care to protect civil rights and, frankly, many people are their own worst enemies.

The latter group will include those members of the public who’ll argue that there’s nothing to worry about if you don’t speed in school zones, for instance. That’s just another variation of the nothing-to-hide excuse for authoritarian surveillance.

As with each effort to strip away privacy rights, there are those who will argue they’re fine with each new measure because they’ve got nothing to hide. Only those with something to hide – only criminals, for those of this misguided mindset – would argue against more surveillance. That kind of reasoning alone is enough to dismiss the “nothing to hide” argument. Of course, it’s also easily shot down by asking those who make that argument if they own curtains and blinds. If they’ve got nothing to hide, they certainly won’t mind others looking in through their windows, right? Or having their bank records made public?

Nobody, of course, wants to do that. We all value some measure of privacy. And we all have something to hide, which doesn’t make us criminals, terrorists or the like.

Our privacy is under attack from every direction, from surveillance cameras to increasingly draconian internet snooping. Large corporations, particularly the invasive Google, Facebook and the like, have created a business model based on violating your privacy and civil rights. They could be shut down at the stroke of a pen by government regulation, yet politicians and bureaucrats have no interest in protecting your rights. Instead, they want to make life much worse, all to their own benefit.

They care not about the unethical drive to boost the state’s ability to collect, track, store, aggregate and use information that represents a huge power imbalance. A lack of control on what happens to the growing amount of information collected poses future risks as technology evolves, while today it threatens to circumvent laws that protect our rights in traditional encounters with authorities.

Sure, there’s some lip service to protecting the public here – officials in Europe are doing a much better job, though there’s a long way to go – but if history has taught us anything it’s that new technologies are never held in check for long. Because we can do something, we will do that thing. Only the most stringent of regulations – the kind not favoured by governments bent on authoritarian control – have a hope of curtailing the erosion of our rights.

We have become accustomed to financial outlets tracking our spending habits via credit and debit cards; “security” cameras are commonplace everywhere from banks to convenience stores; using the Internet leaves a clear trail to those in the know. In the private sector, we still have something of a choice to avoid some of the tracing measures, though not as large as we think – nor as large as we should have if regulators were doing their jobs. But when the government begins installing what are in essence tracking devices with gleeful abandon, we have the state sanctioning this dangerous and invasive practice.

Given the government failures, nobody’s watching the watchers. With photo radar and red-light cameras, government joins the rank of the voyeurs.

It’s into that environment that red light cameras and school-zone photo radar needs to be debated. We’re already suffering death by a thousand cuts, so we need to prevent one more, rolling each back until we’ve got a freer society. There is thus far no talk of such privacy and civil rights concerns, of course.

What reports thus far do talk about is increasing the size of the bureaucracy, which is always the primary concern of bureaucrats. No worries, though, as the costs will be covered by revenues from fines. Those rising staff costs will mean the fines have to worked into the budget – a quota system, as it were. And if people stop cooperating by slowing down in the school zones – the purported rationale for the invasive technology – the region can always add more cameras or make the radar more sensitive or simply boost taxes to pay for increased administrative costs that add no value to the public.

Simply axing the program and the associated staff aren’t on the, well, radar.

Well beyond the pale is the simplest solution of all: drop the idea before it becomes another burden on the wallets and rights of the public.

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