Letter: Plate-readers on bridge add to government surveillance

Posted 6/21/22

To the editor:

The Portsmouth Town Council's approval last week of a plan to put license plate reading cameras at the Mt. Hope Bridge is fatally flawed, and if they are at all concerned about the …

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Letter: Plate-readers on bridge add to government surveillance

Posted

To the editor:

The Portsmouth Town Council's approval last week of a plan to put license plate reading cameras at the Mt. Hope Bridge is fatally flawed, and if they are at all concerned about the risks of expanding government surveillance, they should reconsider their decision.

The scheme was sold to the council as a suicide prevention measure, and the first-year pilot was funded by outside groups, so it is understandable that that they would find the proposal attractive: free money and saving lives — who would vote against that?

But the devil is in the details. For a start, there is money in the just-approved state budget to begin the process of installing suicide barriers and nets on Rhode Island's large spans. Using this as a justification no longer passes the "least restrictive means" test for intrusions into privacy. Nets catch jumpers; cameras do not. 

But what cameras do catch are the license plates and potentially the identifying details of all of the 450,000 cars that cross the Mt. Hope every month. This information would be saved for 30 days, made searchable, and automatically checked against multiple crime databases to, as the vendor, Flock, trumpets, "make it actionable with machine learning."

For those not familiar, machine learning systems are inherently imperfect: they use weighted probabilities to tune their recognition and are susceptible to bias from the data set used to train them. They will get things wrong. Plates will be misread, and police will chase down false alerts. The consequences of a police intervention that goes wrong based on an erroneous hit are a clearly foreseeable risk.

At the council meeting, conflicting information about data security was presented — a Portsmouth Police Department document said that Flock maintained the data, but the Flock FAQ said that it is stored "in the cloud." Given the sensitive nature of tracking the movements of every Rhode Islander crossing the bridge, this does not inspire confidence.

And the proposed benefits only work in a tiny fraction of cases, if at all. Even according to the Portsmouth Police Department, a person considering self harm would need to tell someone, that person would need to know they were in a car, call the appropriate police department (as opposed to the Rhode Island 988 suicide hotline set to launch July 16), the car would have to pass the reader, and the police would have to respond in the few minutes it takes to drive partway across the bridge. 

Arguing that all these factors will come together even once strains credulity. This appears to be a solution in search of a problem at best, and at worst, a pretext by which to insert this vendor's cameras into our community. I urge the council to reconsider.

John McDaid

65 Gormley Ave.

Portsmouth

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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.