Politicians in Iowa City reluctantly pass ban on drones, automatic traffic surveillance

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Iowa state, image courtesy of ShutterstockIt's kind of moot, given that Iowa - a state in the US - isn't actually moving forward to implement technology that would automatically snap photos and recognize vehicles' license plates.

Nonetheless, the city council of Iowa City on Tuesday night bowed to the will of 4,000 petition signers, unanimously approving the first reading of an ordinance that will ban drones, traffic cameras, and license-plate readers.

Enjoy your drone-free city streets as long as you can, Iowa City citizens: city officials say they plan to eventually reverse the ban, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

The newspaper noted that council members made clear that they still support the use of surveillance devices - in particular, red-light cameras - but will wait until state policymakers wrap up a review of possible restrictions on cameras.

One council member, Terry Dickens, said he'll bring back cameras ASAP:

"I’m going to have to support it - ‘have to’ is the key word there - because our state has chosen not to move forward with the technology...

I’ll be the first one to bring back red-light cameras as soon as we can."

The ordinance is in reaction to an earlier ordinance, passed February 2012, in which the city approved of red-light cameras at certain intersections as a means of reducing collisions.

The council told city staff to figure out the best way to make it happen, including possible vendors.

This is how the new ordinance banning the technology now reads:

The City shall not:

A. Use any automatic traffic surveillance system or device, automatic license plate recognition system or device, or domestic drone system or device for the enforcement of a qualified traffic law violation, unless a peace officer or Parking Enforcement Attendant is present at the scene, witnesses the event, and personally issues the ticket to the alleged violator at the time and location of the vehicle

The ordinance, which seems to be the first of its kind in its three-way privacy protection, is being lauded by privacy experts.

Traffic camera, image courtesy of ShutterstockArs Technica's Cyrus Farivar checked in with a few.

One, Woodrow Hartzog, a law professor and privacy expert at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, told Farivar that the ordinance offers blanket protection for citizens to prevent a "host of activities" deemed dubious by some, including tickets from red-light cameras and automated tickets for moving violations issued via mail:

"The ordinance also provides robust privacy protections for citizens by limiting the storage, use, and distribution of data collected by these automated systems to reasons directly pertaining to traffic other criminal violations enforced by an officer on the scene.

This ordinance is one of the most comprehensive and vigorous attempts I've seen to combat automated law enforcement and surveillance, a practice that is being increasingly rejected by citizens over privacy and due process concerns, among other things."

Way to go, Iowa City.

Let's hope that the same citizens who cared enough about privacy to put forward this legislation care enough to fight for it in the face of the city council's desire to retract it in its infancy.


Image of Iowa and photo enforced sign courtesy of Shutterstock.

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6 Responses to Politicians in Iowa City reluctantly pass ban on drones, automatic traffic surveillance

  1. M Parkes · 450 days ago

    While I am all for privacy, automatic number plate recognition systems are used by many police forces in the UK to protect citizens from uninsured, untaxed and unlicensed drivers who have no business on the road so I for one am in favour of such systems, the problem arises when those with the authority to use these systems or those that are in control of such systems that may be positioned on traffic lights or buildings abuse that authority by using the devices for monetary gain rather than for legitimate purposes. Ultimately it is the human equation that causes the problems rather than the systems themselves. In addition there are then all the usual security risks applicable to computer networks where the data collected, lawfully or not could be accidentally or purposefully leaked, stolen or used through exploitation of flaws found in unsecured or poorly secured back end systems connected to such capture devices. Although you might assume that as such systems are under the control of government departments that they would be far more secure than most home or small business networks.

  2. Cliff Jones · 450 days ago

    Terry Dickens better have another job lined up.

    BTW, there are cheap and readily available plate scanners already deployed widely across the US. They mount 4 of them on the fenders of the cars, they can read and identify plates faster than the car can encounter them.

    These things shouldn't be allowed, doubly so for red light cameras. It's all about revenue, it has zero to do with "public safety," in fact you can search up studies that show red light cameras INCREASE accidents, as people pay attention to the lights rather than any other traffic.

    Suddenly stopping short has caused a number of rear end collisions at a nearby intersection that has cameras. I remember the before and after of the installation of cameras at this intersection... it is most definitely much more dangerous now. Off the top of my head I'd say accidents have tripled, conservatively.

  3. NoSpin1600 · 450 days ago

    When you and your automobile are in public view you have given up your expectation of privacy.

  4. James Magnan · 450 days ago

    It should be noted that it does not ban drones. It bans drones for the purposes of traffic enforcement, which is much narrower.

  5. pez · 450 days ago

    my issue with red light cameras and speeding cameras too for that matter, is that you become guilty until proven innocent. you have to prove they got the wrong car, you weren't driving it, and find out who was. and given that you aren't issued the fine on the spot or within a couple of days, that means working out who had the car a couple of months ago
    i think they're onto something, if you want to use them as a tool, issue the ticket straight away by a person

  6. Jenn · 450 days ago

    Being a resident of Iowa, this has been a long time in coming. The biggest problem is that with red light cameras, the person who owns the vehicle receives the ticket, not the driver. This seems a bit innocuous at first but say you allow an adult child to use the car or a grand parent or something, in those situations you end up paying for their violation.

    I got caught by a red light camera in Sugar Land, TX, something I had not encountered before. Upon review of the photo (as you can request this), it was me to ran the red light, but the person in front of me. This person made a right hand turn on red, which is illegal at this light despite lack of signage advising of this. At this point, I find it difficult to view it as anything other than a revenue producer for the city that chooses to utilize it when you're not punishing the offender, but the owner of the vehicle (or person listed on the title).

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.