Iowa City groups host forum on red light cameras, drones

New technology poses threat to civil liberties, due process, groups claim

Published: March 29 2013 | 6:37 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 1:23 pm in

Citizens, politicians, and organizations from both the right and the left united on Thursday night to discuss concerns over technology advancements they believe pose a threat to American civil liberties.

The nonpartisan event — organized by StopBigBrother.org, Young Americans for Liberty, College Republicans and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa — was held with hopes of supporting the effort to ban traffic surveillance cameras and drones in Iowa City, based on the concern that such technology poses a threat to personal privacy and due process.

The forum comes more than a year after StopBigBrother.org — led by Iowa City residents Aleksey Gurtovoy and Martha Hampel — was formed in an effort to prevent the Iowa City City Council from passing an ordinance that would allow traffic enforcement cameras.

During the forum, panelists discussed the safety and moral issues involving traffic cameras, including the idea that high fines associated with the cameras could disproportionately affect the poor, the thought that red-light cameras can cause more traffic accidents, and concerns the cameras might not allow registered owners of cars and drivers due process if they are ticketed.

Though there hasn't been talk of drones being used in Iowa City to date, the panel also covered concerns over the possibility of local law enforcement entities buying drones for city surveillance. Throughout the panel, speakers stressed the need to act to slow the use of both red-light cameras and drones immediately, before their use is too pervasive. 

"If we don't deal with traffic cameras and surveillance now, will we have a chance?" said  Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa. "Ten years from now, there's nothing we can do. It will be so far down the tracks we won't be able to change the trends…if we don't deal with it now or very soon it will be too big of an issue for us to deal with."

Ben Stone, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, said his organization is primarily concerned with ensuring that such technology is used practically and appropriately.

"ACLU's position on drones is not that we're against them," Stone said. "We don't think technology is the end of the world as an organization, but we believe that there are useful practical things that unmanned aerial devices can do. They can be interesting fascinating and cool, but it's also kind of creepy and kind of scary so you have to balance your Star Wars with your George Orwell."

Even though the Iowa City City Council approved the red-light camera ordinance in February 2012, no cameras have been installed yet, and it will likely be at least a year before red-light cameras go up even if the city decides to move forward.

The Iowa Department of Transportation recently said it was developing rules for the use of traffic-enforcement cameras on state routes. Several of the intersections where Iowa City wants to install red-light cameras are on state roads, and the city's plans had already been delayed by the need to collect additional data for the DOT under more general state guidelines.

This week, city staffers recommended waiting to finish that work until after the Department of Transportation adopts the rules, to ensure the city gets what the state wants. The DOT has said it could take up to a year to develop the rules, said John Yapp, Iowa City's transportation planner.

In the meantime, the citizen group is working to gather signatures for what they are calling an initiative to force the City Council to either repeal the ordinance or put it to a public vote. Gurtovoy said Thursday he believes the group has at least 2,400 of the 2,500 signatures it needs in order to get the city council to act.

However, there is some dispute between the group and the city attorney over whether the group has gathered signatures for an initiative, which would propose a measure for the councils consideration, or a referendum, which requires the council to reconsider an existing measure and needs to be filed within 60 days of the decision. That 60-day period has expired.

Though there were several bills aimed at restricting automated law enforcement cameras and drones, all failed to advance out of committee by the so-called funnel deadline earlier this year and are not expected to move forward.

Gazette reporter Gregg Hennigan contributed to this report.

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