While returning from San Francisco for a weekend trip, we stopped for lunch in Emeryville, just outside of the city. As we were about to pull back onto Interstate 80 from Powell Street, a white light flashed on the nearby left turn lane as the red light camera took a picture. The drivers in that lane were being obedient, all of them legally behind the limit line when the arrow turned red.
That flashing white light set off a discussion between my husband and me. Were the light flash and the camera capture triggered by the green arrow turning red or when someone crossed the limit line after the light is red? We figured it was probably the former, but that would mean that plenty of people are having their pictures taken when they’ve done nothing wrong.
I don’t like the idea of an automated camera capturing my image while I’m at a stoplight. Of course, people shouldn’t be running red lights. It’s against the law and could be dangerous (I witnessed a nasty collision once that was caused by someone turning left on the red). But are those images collected used for purposes beyond checking for red light running? Like to establish the whereabouts of a certain person at a certain time and place to build a case against them?
While my husband and I talked about the possibility of the images being misused, it led to further discussion of our expectation of privacy when out in public. There’s a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court in which police attached a GPS device to a drug dealer’s car in order to monitor his movements. They installed the device secretly while the car was in a public parking lot and tracked the man’s movements for a month.
Many of the justices were troubled by the actions of the police. Justice Scalia in particular considered it trespassing since the police attached the device to the man’s car without his knowledge or permission.
In the course of this conversation, I wondered: what if police could use technology to track this individual without affixing a device to his car? What if that device was already there?
What if every car manufactured were required to have a GPS installed? And let’s say it’s installed within the car’s electrical system in such a way that it could not be easily removed or its removal would disable the car. I can imagine this “every car must have a GPS” being sold as a way to minimize car theft. If a thief knew every car could be tracked, that might make them think twice about stealing one.
So we’re all happy that no one is stealing cars, until we realize that cars are not just being tracked when someone is suspected of breaking the law. We have the equivalent of red light cameras on every street corner that sense and record the location of every car that passes. The cars are identified by their VIN numbers which are read when the car’s location is noted. All this data is dumped somewhere in a server farm and whenever the police need to know the whereabouts of someone, they can scrape out that data.
Okay, I’m paranoid. I wrote about essentially this sort of thing in my book Tankborn, except it’s people being tracked instead of vehicles. But I do think there’s a slippery slope here with attaching GPS devices to cars, even if that car belongs to a bad guy police want to catch. Because I just have too good an imagination of where it could lead.