Op-Ed: Bridge cameras would jeopardize public privacy

Posted 9/9/22

The following letter was sent from the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the board of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority and its executive director, Lori Silviera, as …

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Op-Ed: Bridge cameras would jeopardize public privacy


The following letter was sent from the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the board of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority and its executive director, Lori Silviera, as well as Chief Kevin Lynch of the Bristol Police Department and Kevin Aguiar, President of the Portsmouth Town Council, on Aug. 30, 2022. It has been slightly edited for brevity. The full letter is available here.

During RITBA’s August 17, 2022 Board meeting, a discussion was held with the Bristol Police Department regarding the potential installation of two automated license plate readers at the southern end of the Mount Hope Bridge. These cameras would be stationed on the Portsmouth side of the bridge, where their use had been voted against by the Portsmouth Town Council. Because Portsmouth’s participation in the program was rejected by their municipal body, the Bristol Police Department is seeking permission from RITBA to install these cameras – owned and operated by a private company called Flock Safety – notwithstanding the interests of the municipality in which the cameras would be located.

We write to RITBA today to respectfully, but strongly, urge that you reject these attempts from the Bristol Police Department to not only undermine the interests of their neighboring municipality, but to install an expansive and largely unregulated system of surveillance technology on state operated property. The ACLU of Rhode Island has consistently expressed serious concerns about the impact that this surveillance system would have on privacy, the public oversight of policing tools, First Amendment rights, and racial disparities in law enforcement. RITBA should not take the unnecessary step of involving itself in such a program.

First, the use of this technology by the Bristol Police Department has been misleadingly sold to both RITBA and the public as an important tool for addressing suicide prevention. At bottom, though, the use of such an intrusive – and truly Orwellian – surveillance system like Flock Safety strikes us as an incredibly ineffective and inefficient way to achieve that goal, and not just because a much more direct and meaningful effort is underway to consider adding suicide barriers on the bridge. If police learn that a person driving a particular car may be considering suicide, it makes little sense to wait until a camera captures the car driving on the bridge to take action. Indeed, Flock Safety itself notes that its technology has “no specific use case for suicide prevention.” As we discuss in our appendix, this is a perfect example of “mission creep,” where technology implemented for one purpose quickly gets refashioned for other intrusive uses.

Further, while we don’t mean to question the motivations behind Bristol’s request, we do think it fair to predict that well over 99% of the uses of this system will be for matters completely unrelated to suicide prevention. In fact, while the Bristol Police Department has communicated to RITBA a narrow purpose for these cameras, that scope of use is unsupported by the draft policy on this technology, which was presented by the Department to the Bristol Town Council in May. The policy explicitly provides that an “ALPR may be used in conjunction with any routine patrol operation or criminal investigation; reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required before using an ALPR.”

There is no basis to believe that cameras mounted on the bridge with RITBA’s approval would or could be used any differently or more narrowly than any other cameras that are or eventually become a part of the police department’s Flock Safety system – that is, they would become tools for routine law enforcement purposes without any need to demonstrate cause for their use. And regardless of Bristol’s intent, access to information gathered by the cameras would also be available to every other police department in the state making use of Flock Safety.

All of this strikes us as even more problematic when one considers the cameras would be installed inside a municipality that has explicitly expressed disapproval in their installation. RITBA should not be a party to the police department’s proposed usurpation.

Finally, we note, importantly, that RITBA itself has commendably recognized the critical privacy interests at stake with this type of technology. RITBA’s electronic toll system is essentially a less sophisticated variation of Flock Safety’s “automated license plate reader” system, but your agency’s “Toll Account and Transaction Information Policy and Procedure” incorporates an array of strong privacy protections to ensure that the system’s use is strictly limited and that it protects the privacy of drivers to the maximum extent possible. Any assistance by RITBA in the installation of Flock Safety cameras on Bristol’s behalf runs counter to the privacy-sensitive philosophy underlying your own policies.

We hope that the reasons explained above are sufficient for you to rebuff the Bristol Police Department’s request. Thank you for your consideration of our views.

Steven Brown
Executive Director, Rhode Island ACLU
Hannah Stern
Policy Associate, Rhode Island ACLU

2022 by East Bay Media Group

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.