Toll and traffic safety cameras can’t be used to fight crime. Washington Legislature should fix that

Imagine you’re the unlucky victim of a car prowl but the lucky recipient of a hot tip just minutes after your stuff was stolen. A credit card company alerts you that a fraudulent transaction was attempted with your card at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge tollbooth.

So you do what any take-charge crime victim would do: You notify police, then quickly contact the Good to Go tolling office for information about the vehicle that was blocked from using your card.

That’s when the hot tip goes ice cold. Good to Go isn’t authorized to share any toll camera data for crime-fighting purposes. Not with you, and not with detectives. Sorry, Charlie, but the cops already know the drill.

Very little imagination is needed for this scenario, because it actually happened in Gig Harbor — along with other cases where criminal investigations were stonewalled, according to legislative testimony in Olympia last week before the House Public Safety Committee.

Under Washington law, photo toll systems can only record vehicle images for the strict purpose of collecting tolls or assessing civil penalties. Similarly, municipal traffic safety cameras can be used only to enforce stoplight, railroad crossing or school speed zone violations.

That would change if Washington communities and police agencies are fortunate enough to see House Bill 1229 become law this year.

Yes, some caution is understandable in our around-the-clock surveillance society, where cameras seem to be everywhere and the surrender of privacy happens at a pace that would make George Orwell spin in his grave.

But HB1229 is a reasonable proposal with prudent limits built in — for example, electronic data could be released only with a search warrant. Since all that’s recorded are images of vehicles and license plates, this is much less intrusive than what detectives already can access with a judge’s approval, including telephone and banking records.

The bill is a bipartisan effort drafted with Pierce County in mind; the first two names on it are lead sponsor Rep. Michelle Caldier, a Republican representing the Gig Harbor Peninsula, and Rep. Christine Kilduff, a University Place Democrat. All 22 Pierce County law enforcement agencies signed a letter of support.

With modest fixes, such as clarity on how long records could be retained, we think it would make a good law.

Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey gave credible testimony at Monday’s public hearing, where he identified electronic toll images as a “hole in our public safety system.” And not just for victims of credit card theft.

“If a homicide occurred in my jurisdiction and data to determine if a suspect vehicle passed through the toll facility was unavailable, how would I explain that to a victim’s family?” Busey said.

A parent’s worst nightmare also could take a cruel turn under current law: a child abduction, followed by an amber alert — but with no tracking assistance from other potentially helpful technology, such as red-light and toll cameras.

Busey largely dismissed the “Big Brother” aspect of the bill. “I can assure you I don’t have the time or the interest to comb through unvetted data just simply looking to dredge up more crimes,” he told lawmakers.

But Eric Gonzalez Alfaro, legislative director for the ACLU of Washington, called the bill a “radical shift” from the original intent for which these recording devices were authorized. He said the change shouldn’t be undertaken without a full public debate.

He’s right, and that’s what the Legislature is doing now.

As for Gonzalez Alfaro’s claim that Washington governments are determined to put a camera at every intersection, that seems a bit overwrought. The City of Tacoma, for example, has maintained red-light and photo radar cameras at a total of 16 locations since 2007, and any expansion would have to pass muster with elected officials.

Still, it’s an irrevocable fact that Americans are being watched and subjected to data collection all the time, whether by choice (smartphones, Amazon Echo devices) or by tacit consent of the governed. Cops are increasingly being surveilled even as they conduct surveillance, with the advent of dashboard and body cameras in police forces around the country.

These are the choices we’ve made and the price we pay to live in a society that values both transparency and public safety.

In a country where people want every camera angle checked to resolve the outcome of a pro football game, why wouldn’t we expect as much in criminal investigations?

House Bill 1229 would make the most of the tools we have available without pushing the constitutional envelope too far.