Traffic cameras don't announce their presence as boldly as the stoplights they often accompany. They're designed to blend in with their surroundings — but that doesn't mean we don't see them.
Some American municipalities, including a few in Vermont, have placed video cameras in public locations. That has privacy activists decrying the rise of the "surveillance state." But does the presence of traffic cameras mean that Big Brother really is watching? And if so, WTF is "he" looking at in Vermont?
Many state laws specify what kinds of traffic cameras are permissible, and the circumstances in which their data can be used. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 439 American communities allow the use of traffic-camera data to catch motorists who run red lights. In 139 locales, video can be used to bust speeders or other moving violators.
Vermont is among the 27 states that do not stipulate how traffic cameras are used. But that doesn't mean the issue isn't on Vermont's legislative radar. State Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said that legislators will introduce, in January, a bill that proposes revisions to state laws concerning the use of controversial license plate reader cameras. In that traffic cameras may be used to gather license plate data, their use could be affected.
"The legislature is trying to do some deep thinking about the balancing act between effective law enforcement, public safety and respecting people's personal privacy," said Ashe. "In this day and age, that's not the simplest balance to strike."
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Vermont, is well aware that Vermont does not regulate the use of traffic cameras. "There are very, very, very few statewide regulations and consistent policies on policing in this state," he noted. "Most people really don't know how many different cameras are out there, let alone how they're being used."
Some of the state's most populous cities, including South Burlington and Rutland, do not use traffic cameras. Burlington does, but, according to Bruce Bovat, deputy chief of operations for the Burlington Police Department, motorists need not worry about police scrutiny. "The Burlington police don't own any [traffic] cameras," said Bovat. "Any cameras you see on traffic signals are not affiliated with us."
So who is responsible for those cameras at often-congested intersections including Prospect and Pearl streets and Main Street and University Heights? The Department of Public Works. The cameras' sole task, according to DPW traffic signal engineer Dave Garen, is to monitor and respond to traffic patterns.
Garen explained that the cameras serve the same function as "loop detectors," or traffic-control devices that use pavement-embedded wires to determine the presence and flow of vehicles. That information is relayed to traffic lights, which alter their signals accordingly. Burlington's traffic cameras use different technologies to accomplish the same ends. To the cameras, each vehicle is just a data point that it uses to adapt signals to traffic flow.
"Cameras are very expensive," said Garen. "I'd prefer loops, but it's difficult to keep them in service here, with the pavement cracking and bulging."
He emphasized that the data gathered by Burlington's traffic cameras are not archived. "There's no reason for it," Garen said. "No video is being brought back to the office here in any way, shape or form." Monitors may be connected to the cameras' feeds, but only for maintenance purposes.
Commuters know that Winooski also has a few cameras around its downtown traffic circle. According to Peter Wernsdorfer, Winooski's director of public works, these also are used chiefly to monitor vehicular patterns. But not exclusively.
Wernsdorfer recalled an occasion when a citizen called to report a broken streetlight, and Winooski police dispatchers swiveled a camera to confirm that the light was, in fact, out of service. "We didn't have to get someone on call and incur the cost of that," he explained.
Wernsdorfer also mentioned an April 2014 incident in which a motorist suffered a heart attack while driving. A traffic camera captured footage of his vehicle careening and then crashing in the roundabout. The footage proved useful to police, the public works department, doctors and insurance providers, said Wernsdorfer.
Cameras appear on other Vermont roads, as well. According to Joshua Schultz, a project manager at the Agency of Transportation, his department has installed 28 traffic cameras, most along interstates and a few on state routes.
These cameras are used solely for "situational awareness," said Schultz — monitoring traffic patterns, accidents and poor road conditions. "We're not streaming them; we're not recording anything," he added.
While the state does not store video data from the cameras, Schultz clarified, it does store a snapshot taken by each camera every five minutes. Lt. Garry Scott of the Vermont State Police said his agency would request access to such data only in the event of "something horrific, like a major crash or an Amber Alert. But I can't think of an instance where we have done that."
Those "snapshots" are available to the public, too, via VTrans' 511 website.
It appears that most traffic cameras in Vermont serve to monitor and adjust vehicular traffic, not to restrict citizens' privacy. But since no law governs the cameras' use, nothing prevents them from being turned to surveillance.
Then again, if we are living in a surveillance state, the chief surveyors might not be law-enforcement agencies. The security cameras mounted in the doorways of many private businesses are often positioned to record images of public spaces. Law enforcement might be justified in using cameras for security reasons, but private entities have no such mandate.
Who's watching these self-appointed watchers?
Sen. Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.
The original print version of this article was headlined "What Do Traffic Cameras Record, and Who Uses the Data?"