NY lawmakers: End decades-old privacy protection for highway cameras

Matthew Chayes for Newsday

July 27, 2021

Originally published in Newsday on July 27, 2021.

When video cameras went up more than 20 years ago along New York’s highways to spot crashes, pinpoint gridlock and estimate travel times, the state promised privacy protections: Feeds wouldn't be recorded or used for law enforcement.

But now a trio of state legislators wants those rules undone.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Assemb. Michaelle Solages and State Sens. Todd Kaminsky and John Brooks lamented how the policy hampers police investigations due to unavailability of "footage of dangerous activities that occur on our roads, such as reckless driving, speeding, street racing, or crashes." The letter asks the state Department of Transportation "to require all footage from traffic cameras be recorded and maintained for a period of time so that law enforcement agencies can access it … to apprehend perpetrators of traffic crimes and keep motorists safe."

The letter doesn’t say how long footage should be retained, but in New Jersey it’s seven days; in Wisconsin it’s three. Certain states, such as Maryland and Illinois, do real-time enforcement via license plate readers or cameras on highways. Others, such as Florida and New Mexico, have cited privacy concerns in declining altogether to record traffic cameras.

State Department of Transportation spokesperson Glenn Blain said by email that the agency is reviewing the request "and welcomes the opportunity to discuss the matter further."

In 1999, Emilio Sosa, the department’s then-director of the traffic monitoring system, said the state's cameras are to be used to find the source of gridlock, not for law enforcement, and were never recorded. The privacy rules are spelled out in a 13-page document dated Sept. 4, 2001: The cameras "shall be used only as needed to perform necessary transportation planning, traffic management and traveler information functions … and shall not be used to monitor persons or private property." Only on "an exception basis" will personal information be collected, "such as zooming in on an incident to determine accident severity and appropriate emergency response."

But, Kaminsky said, there are 30 such cameras on the Southern State Parkway alone, recording is a deterrent to bad driving, and the policy shouldn’t have been promulgated in the first place.

"It was a policy that doesn’t make sense. It defies logic, he said. "You know, there is not an expectation of privacy in the exterior of your vehicle, on a public highway, in view for anyone to see. And I think it’s clear in light of the numerous tragedies that have occurred on our roads in the decades since that it’s time for that policy to change."