The Miami Herald recently ran a story under the headline "Light runners will get temporary reprieve". Reader RS was baffled. Arguments at the Winter Olympics over bobsled design rules? A problem with proposed weight classes for marathon contestants? The deck explains:
Delays in the installation of Miami Beach's red-light camera program has led to a grace period extension for violators and continuing questions about the money expected from the program.
One curious aspect of the general question of surveillance cameras has always interested me. (It's not relevant to these red-light cameras, as I understand their operation, but I'll explain it here anyhow.)
It's against federal law to record a conversation without a court order or the consent of at least one of the parties to the conversation. (Many states have stronger laws, making it illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all the parties involved.) This generally seems to be interpreted to forbid setting up surveillance microphones, even in public places, though the question of when "implicit consent" might be invoked, due to the lack of expectation of privacy, or some kind of notification that recording might be taking place, is a complex one.
But video recording is not considered to be covered by such laws, and therefore setting up surveillance cameras in public and semi-public places doesn't seem to raise any legal issues.
This distinction was underlined for me a few years ago, when there was a dispute about an arrest that took place in the entry-way of a building on my campus. The parties involved disagreed about what was said. There was a surveillance camera that recorded the interaction, including gestures and facial expressions and so on, but of course there was no audio track.
A more recent example is implicit in the Lower Merion High School webcam scandal. The issue there is that LANrev's "Theft Track" system, which school officials used to check up on stray school-provided laptops, activates the computers' built-in webcams. As far as I know, this system doesn't activate the built-in microphones, presumably because if it did, it would be in violation of federal and state anti-eavesdropping laws. In this case, most people seem to regard the webcam activation as a violation of privacy, in a way that surveillance cameras in public places are not.
Note that conversations in sign language would be more completely recorded by such devices, whether webcams or surveillance cameras. And as high-resolution cameras and digital storage come closer and closer to being free, I guess we can expect the quality of these recordings to improve, perhaps to the point where some lip reading might be possible.
Anyhow, I've always found it interesting that the laws and practices dealing with the recording of human interactions seem to be so different for video compared to audio. Is this because people really do see them as different? Or is it because the anti-wiretapping and eavesdropping laws were written before large-scale video surveillance was technically feasible?
People's moral reactions to such things seem to depend very much on the situation and on their own connection to it. Most people are appalled, I think, at the idea of school officials using the built-in microphones in school-provided computers to eavesdrop on students. But when I ask people to imagine that their laptop has been stolen, and that they learn of a hidden feature of its operating system that allows them to activate the webcam and microphone to eavesdrop on the thieves, they have a much more positive reaction. The question of whose ox is gored also often seems to affect people's reactions to the legal and moral status of various forms of eavesdropping within the family, as discussed here and here.
But anyhow, whatever exactly the constraints of the current law are, I've always thought it was interesting that surveillance cameras are proliferating everywhere, for example in stores and offices, but always (?) without audio.