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Marietta traffic cameras an erosion of liberty

Grab your muskets, boys and girls. It's time to take a stand against the creeping abuse of technology in the name of law enforcement.

Cameras have been installed at a Marietta intersection, snapping pictures of those who allegedly run red lights. Decatur is reportedly thinking of following. In Tampa, Fla., police are going even further, photographing crowds in the Ybor City entertainment district and using a computer system that matches faces against a database of people wanted by the police.

And of course, virtually anywhere you go these days, surveillance cameras monitor your every move. The FBI even dug up tape showing Tim McVeigh eating at McDonald's on his way to Oklahoma City. These days, even a murderous terrorist can't enjoy a burger in peace.

The constitutional ramifications of this Big Brothering are considerable, but it is also lazy law enforcement. If red-light scofflaws are a problem in Marietta or if bad guys are partying in Tampa then, by all means, dispatch police to fetch them. But don't rely on machines to do work that flesh-and-bone cops are unable, or unwilling, to do.

After all, machines have no capacity for making judgments — determining, for example, a little thing called probable cause. They can't be cross-examined in court, as our Constitution guarantees. And as law enforcers, they can be as fallible as the real thing.

In San Diego, for instance, a judge recently tossed out hundreds of machine-generated red light tickets, amid complaints that the technology was spitting out bogus violations. A whistleblower has accused the company that installed the system of putting detectors at heavily traveled intersections likely to produce a large number of tickets, rather than places where chronic red-light-running was causing a particular safety hazard. That's not surprising, as the company received $70 of every $271 ticket written.

To its credit, the Georgia Legislature, in allowing traffic monitoring systems, forbid local governments from entering into cozy revenue-sharing relationships with private firms. They also required municipalities to post signs warning motorists that cameras are being used.

This last safeguard is important, because the purpose of a police presence should be to prevent people from breaking the law. But even with that provision, camera systems, which cost more than $50,000 a pop, still create an incentive not to prevent violations.

For if people really stop running red lights, how are we going to pay for all this gadgetry? We can always shift flesh-and-blood cops to other tasks if the red-light-running problem is licked, but these pricey cameras can't be used to chase down a bank robber or search the woods for Chandra Levy.

The strongest argument against law enforcement by machine is, however, more primal, cutting to the heart of what it means to live in a free society. If I am driving through Marietta minding my own business and stopping for red lights, why should I be subjected to having my car photographed? Why should I have to endure the suspicion of the state if I'm not doing anything suspicious?

A live officer at that intersection won't pay attention to me because I'm doing nothing to catch his eye. A machine, though, can't reason. It will scrutinize both the innocent and the guilty.

Will Marietta cops do something sinister with my picture? Is this part of some police-state conspiracy? Of course not. If I'm stopping at red lights, I won't have anything to worry about. But even if we accept that the powers that be in Marietta or Tampa are acting from the best of motives, meekly accepting such surveillance because it seems benign lets the proverbial camel's nose under the tent.

Police in Tampa, for instance, originally used their face database system to watch for terrorists at the Super Bowl. Then, as rowdy crowds in Ybor City got out of hand, someone had the bright idea to routinely use it to target troublemakers. How long before some wag decides to match faces at, say, places where Tamponians buy lottery tickets or pay taxes or renew car tags?

There's already talk about how the systems now being used to find red-light runners might be adapted to target speeders. Surveillance cameras first installed to alert security guards to attacks in halls and stairwells now record movements of the law-abiding, giving police agencies recorded access to our private, legal comings and goings. Once upon a time, only people who had broken the law got fingerprinted; now, everybody who drives a car in Georgia gets fingerprinted.

Our liberty is being nibbled away by well-intentioned ducks in the name of the nanny state. If we don't raise hell about these creeping erosions of our freedom, we will one day find ourselves significantly less free. And we will have no one to blame but our sheep-like selves.??

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