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John Whitehead's Commentary

Photo Police: Big Brother Invades Our Privacy

John Whitehead
The greatest threat to our freedom in the coming millennium is technology, or more specifically, its misuse. Unfortunately, many new devices already in use are paving the way for a form of government surveillance that will be so pervasive that the word "freedom" will become an anachronism.

A relatively new Orwellian watchdog is called photo radar. It employs cameras at stoplights to photograph drivers who may run red lights. It also involves cameras placed on highways to track and photograph potential speeders. The state allegedly uses photo radar to increase traffic safety. However, evidence shows that these costly and ineffective measures serve more to reduce the privacy of motorists than to decrease the number of accidents.

Photo radar is often used at railroad crossings, intersections and on toll roads and highways to photograph vehicles that supposedly violate the rules of the road. Despite controversy over the technology's cost to citizens' privacy rights and their wallets, it has been employed in more than ten states across the nation. Over 45 countries in Europe and Asia, and Canada as well, have also used photo radar for years, with mixed results.

Private vendors supply the expensive cameras to a municipality. Just one red light camera costs approximately $50,000, with installation and additional sensors adding another $5000--all at taxpayers' expense. The sensors track vehicles, and when one allegedly runs a red light or exceeds the speed limit, the camera is triggered. The license plate and driver are photographed and tracked. A ticket is then mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle.

The problem, however, is that the photographed driver may not be the registered owner. Another problem of photo radar is the length of time it takes to notify the driver of the alleged violation. By the time the car owner, presumably the driver, receives the ticket, his or her recollection may be clouded. Thus, the owner must bear the burden of proving innocence instead of the state bearing the burden of proving guilt. The scales of justice are, thus, reversed.

Because of the expense, insufficient revenue, and mainly because of the complaints of disgruntled drivers, some jurisdictions have discontinued their photo radar programs. Nonetheless, state officials across the nation continue to adopt the new technology. With photo radar, the cities can issue more traffic tickets and thus generate greater revenue, but at what cost to the citizen and taxpayer?

Florida and New York already use automated tracking devices and toll records to investigate criminal suspects' whereabouts--but with varied success. However, photo surveillance as a means to reduce crime has proven to be ineffective and invasive.

Many people share the outrage of Chris Ridder, a columnist with The Anchorage Press, who wrote that photo radar is "one step closer to the establishment bringing us to our knees." The wealth of information that can be gathered on private citizens by these "Photo Cops™" is frightening.

After observing system engineers using roadside cameras to zoom in on innocent pedestrians, Randy Morris, a commissioner in Seminole County, Florida, fought to remove a traffic-monitoring system in his county. He succeeded. Unfortunately, however, many cities and towns still rely on the photo monitors. Thus, many innocent motorists and pedestrians are daily victims of high-tech voyeurism.

No longer can the open road be a symbol of anonymity and freedom. With the photo police, privacy is becoming a luxury of the past.

Proponents of photo radar argue that this surveillance is for our own protection. But with the authorities' ability to track our every move by cameras posted at intersections and on highways, toll roads, or street corners--without our knowledge--Big Brother is no longer fiction. It is now reality.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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