Through the advent of the Internet, it has become true that computers can take you anywhere. However, for RIT graduate student, Tommy Keane, this virtual train of thought has become a real life adventure.

Keane, who received his dual BS/MS from RIT’s electrical engineering program in 2011, is now pursuing his doctoral degree in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science – which led him to Ragusa, Sicily for one week this past July to team up with other doctoral students from around the world for the International Computer Vision Summer School. If that alone weren’t exciting enough, during his week in Sicily, Keane was awarded the inaugural “Brady Prize”, named for the academic equivalent of his great- grandfather, Michael Brady (his adviser’s adviser’s adviser – get it?) This prestigious award stresses the social impact of technology alongside the fundamental goals of research and development.

So what exactly did Keane do to receive such an honor? He discussed the perhaps missed ethical flaws in something that has become very near and dear to our beloved Rochester over the past year: traffic light cameras, and the “ethical traffic jam when surveillance and privacy rights collide.” Keane’s study poses that surveillance of people in public areas could potentially expose a great deal of information regarding their identity, habits, location, and intentions, leading to presupposed judgments on the individual. Keane also notes that traffic cameras should be used as a tool, not a replacement solution, adding, “Roadway surveillance for tracking and monitoring individuals seems to be band-aids put on the problem of reckless driving.”

Although the most recent, Sicily was not the first adventure Keane’s doctoral studies have taken him on. Back in March, Keane traveled alongside fellow students from and RIT/U of R collaboration to Death Valley National Park in California to collect eye-tracking data. During this study, Keane captured panoramic and still imagery to track how students gain knowledge by focusing on important features and blocking out unnecessary information.

It’s been an exciting year for Keane, but his computer vision travels won’t be stopping any time soon. After completing his doctoral degree, Keane plans to pursue a career in industry developing algorithms for three-dimensional technology for film or television productions.

So, on that note – what did you do this summer?

There’s been a bit of… discussion… surrounding the use of red light cameras in Rochester. Do they actually discourage running red lights? Well, revenues from the cameras have been reported higher than expected, so perhaps not. But do they contribute to a general culture of better safety? Other reports say yes, they do.

But now it appears that Xerox Corporation has made a move in Maryland to widen the debate still further: do traffic cameras on busses stop people from blowing past them while kids are getting on the bus? The Frederick County, Md school district will be installing cameras, networking and software created by Xerox to monitor kids as they get on and off the bus, while at the same time, checking for drivers who illegally pass the bus while stopped. Xerox characterizes the need for its CrossSafe™ software with the following quote:

“Xerox understands our sense of urgency to address this very serious concern to student safety,” said Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins. “Violators will now face serious penalties and be held accountable for their disregard for the safety of children traveling on buses. CrossSafe™ is a turnkey solution that will help make bus routes safer and ease the minds of parents.”

“Urgency” is an interesting word. A quick Google News search turned up absolutely no mentions in local Maryland news of this program. Thumbing through the school’s news archives – as far back as mid-terms last year – turns up no discussion of this program. I can’t even find any reports of accidents in the area involving school busses.

Where is the urgency?

To be clear: blowing past a stopped school bus while they’re picking up school children is dumb, dumb, dumb. And potentially fatal. But potential is a shitty benchmark for public policy, especially policy that continues to contribute to our Nanny State culture where you’re not allowed to do anything without being filmed. And lord knows that as a liberal, I just love spending other people’s tax dollars, but seriously? Could they have hired another music teacher with the cash they’ve ported to Rochester (hugs ‘n kisses)? Maybe spent that money on actual problems?

I know, I know. I had hoped to find something completely different when I started this article. But the truth is that the evidence supporting red light cameras as effective safety measures is pretty overwhelming and extends back quite a few years.

But even just two months ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that:

Based on that comparison, the researchers concluded that the rate of fatal red light running crashes in cities with cameras in 2004-08 was 24 percent lower than it would have been without cameras. That adds up to 74 fewer fatal red light running crashes or, given the average number of fatalities per red light running crash, approximately 83 lives saved.

This was based on studying 99 cities who have recently installed new red light cameras. Yes, it is true that cities do get revenue from the lights. But in Chicago as one example, that number is about $60m. Sounds like a lot, right? Except when you factor in that the city has a budget deficit of $635m dollars. Chicago’s total budget weighs in at around $6bn. Does $60m really add up to a whole lot? Not really, no. The city pays more to maintain its firemen’s pensions annually.

The reason red light cameras appear to be so effective is largely psychological. Over time, drivers become aware that certain lights have cameras on them, and whether they like to think themselves rebels or not, they generally avoid getting dinged by the cameras:

So, while I’m not a huge fan of them myself, the fact is that they work. And considering that the federal Department of Transportation estimates 100,000 and 1,000 fatalities can be attributed to people running red lights, there are ample reasons to suggest that those cameras are probably here to stay. Pht.

In the American Colonies, before the Revolution, taxation was done at the whim of a Parliament in which American tax payers had no representation whatsoever. But far worse for many Americans caught a-foul of the law, settling disputes and penalties with the British legal system often meant showing up in court in Merry Old England herself. Such a voyage in those days meant months and years away from the very properties these Americans we trying to maintain, to say nothing of the lost income and extra expense of the voyage, lodging in England and the like. It was precisely these types of extreme hardships – much more so than the taxation itself – that prompted a few well-educated and wealthy Americans to start plotting the Revolution.

The American Revolution can therefore be thought of in a certain context as a radical renegotiation of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Not simply a reinvention of government, but forging of a new principle of power sharing, supported by thousands of legal pleadings in British courts, up to and including the final and most famous Declaration of Independence.

But I don’t recall having reached any such deal with cameras or computers.[1. Title of this post provided by a lyric from Yes: Machine Messiah]

More and more municipal governments, including most recently Rochester, have been employing red light cameras and other automated means of handling law enforcement issues. This is raising many legal and ethical concerns among many quarters, as Doug Emblidge points to in his above-linked blog post. My concern may seem oblique, but it seems to me that implicit in the negotiation of law is the fact that law exists as a guidepost towards justice, not an iron-clad set of parameters from within which a computer program is expected to perform.

This is not an abstract concept for philosophy classes, nor is it a plot for some 1970’s “computers take over the world” scenario movie. No set of circumstances which deviates from the law yields any other outcome for a computer than a violation of that law, and even if the issue can be resolved in a court, we once again require that potentially innocent people take time out of their lives to prove thier innocence – or potentially fail to – at the behest of a set of arbitrary laws.

Cops do not issue tickets for every violation they see. They don’t even issue tickets for every person they pull over. Computers contain no subroutines for compassion or clemency.