Law, Technology & Arts Blog

Big Brother is Watching… But not in Iowa City?

Posted in Government and Regulation, Privacy, University of Washington School of Law by LTA-Editor on June 10, 2013
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Old Capitol Building in Iowa City

By Megan Fensterman

In an unprecedented move to protect citizen privacy, Iowa City residents presented the city council with a bill last week which, if passed, would ban the use of all red-light cameras, license plate readers, and traffic enforcement drones within the city. The bill was introduced after several groups, including StopBigBrother.org, Young Americans for Liberty, College Republicans, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, held a forum in March to address citizens’ concerns related to such enforcement technologies. Notably, many parts of the bill are intended as proactive measures; while the bill would require removal of red-light cameras already in place, Iowa City officials have announced no plans to use drones or license plate readers as part of their traffic enforcement strategies.

Though banning drones is not a novel concept (41 states have already introduced bills to limit or ban such technology), the move to ban other enforcement technology is. In fact, many cities have expanded the use of both red-light cameras and license plate readers in recent months. Just one day before Iowa City announced their bill, the city council of Piedmont, CA approved a measure to spend $678,613 to install 39 license plate readers at its city borders. Last month, media investigations revealed that in 2011, the Florida Department of Transportation changed its rules to allow shorter yellow light lengths. In 2013, this change is projected to generate $120 million in fines from red-light camera tickets.

In light of such expansions, the Iowa City ban would be a huge win for privacy advocates. License plate readers in particular have caused outcries from such advocates. One major concern is that the readers, which are generally mounted on either sign posts or directly on police patrol cars, are used to track and monitor the GPS locations of every car within the camera’s sight. Then, whether the vehicle is associated with criminal activity or not, those plate numbers are recorded and stored in a database, along with the GPS coordinates, date and time. Without proper safeguards in place, such technology can be used to track the movements of all citizens, whether or not they are suspected of a crime. The lack of protective legislation has caused groups like the ACLU to take action against invasive uses of the technology.

The Iowa City bill must pass two further rounds of voting, but last week’s initial vote was unanimous, with council members voting 7-0 in favor. If the bill ultimately passes, the ban will be in place for two years. Though other states have attempted to ban red-light cameras, the Iowa City bill would be the most expansive bill of this type in the country.

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