An Open Letter to John Kaehny

Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives

Dear Sir:

On 9 May 2001, The New York Post reported that the Giuliani administration will soon ask the New York State Legislature for permission to double (from 50 to 100) the number of surveillance cameras that are installed at intersections and used to photograph the license plate numbers of cars that "run" red lights in New York City. In the course of this article, you are quoted as saying that allowing the police to install surveillance cameras in public places doesn't trouble you because "there's no racial profiling. It's absolutely fair, and there's photographic evidence." (We assume that reporter Kenneth Lovett quoted you accurately. Please correct us if this is not the case.)

Your comments are very troubling, especially since they come from someone who heads a group that works to make New York City a more human place, not a less human place. Perhaps you might benefit from re-reading the text of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the police without the existence of probable cause and the issuance of warrants. As the Supreme Court made clear in Katz v. the United States (1967), unreasonable searches and seizures may not occur in either public or private places. That is to say, citizens of the United States have the right to expect that their privacy will be respected, no matter where they are, even when they appear in such public places as sidewalks, streets and parks. Surprised by the "extremism" of this position? You shouldn't be. This country was founded by revolutionaries; the Bill of Rights was added by political radicals who thought that the original document didn't go far enough.

"Red light" surveillance cameras routinely, systematically infringe the rights protected by the Fourth Amendment, because these cameras do not simply photograph license plate numbers. They also capture ("search and seize") large quantities of visual information that is totally unrelated to the issue at hand (obeying traffic laws): the faces of the people in the passenger seat(s), and the faces of pedestrians or other motorists who happened to be near or going through the intersection when the picture was snapped. All of this irrelevant or "excess" information is highly personal, and certainly covered by Fourth Amendment (and Fifth Amendment!) protections. And yet no one -- not even the New York Civil Liberties Union -- is talking about preventing these surveillance cameras from recording irrelevant information, preventing irrelevant information from being disclosed (intentionally or unintentionally), or removing irrelevant information should it find its way into a police database. Certainly you aren't talking about these issues, and we are disappointed and dismayed.

As for racial profiling: though it is a very serious problem -- it violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment -- no one should be comforted by the notion that surveillance cameras installed in public places by the police without probable cause or properly signed warrants do not practice it. These surveillance cameras practice something more general and far worse than racial profiling: namely, human profiling. Each and every driver (without regard for race, religion or creed) is indiscriminately suspected of violating traffic laws until the cameras have proved them innocent. This isn't how one controls traffic in a free society: it's how one does it in a police state.

Sincerely yours, the Surveillance Camera Players.

Note: an addendum to this letter was offered on 21 May 2001. Transportation Alternatives has yet to respond to or even acknowledge receipt of the SCP's open letter.

Note as well: in its bulletin for the week of 11 June 2001, Transportation Alternatives proclaimed:

Your Advocacy Action Needed -- Speed Cams Opposed

T.A.'s Speed Camera legislation is being held up by legislative leaders in the NY State Assembly. Their reason --- fear of intruding on the privacy of speeders. Contact your assemblymember and tell them to support AO7355 and stand-up for safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians. Writing is best but calling, emailing, faxing are also great. Find your assemblymember at:

Read more on our campaign for speed cams at:

The SCP calls upon anti-surveillance activists wherever they are to contact Transportation Alternatives and ask them to explain their failure to adequately address the threat "red light cameras" pose to our constitutionally protected right to privacy.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

Return to

Surveillance Camera Players


Return to