Xenia’s New Traffic Signals : Is Big Brother Now Watching?

by Daniel Downs

Some people are wondering whether Xenia officials have joined the Big Brother club in Washington, D.C. Why? Because of small camera-like gadgets hanging near the new traffic signals. Seeing those camera-like gadgets elicits a strong temptation of suspicion about whether Xenia official will now be watching. Being among that suspicious group, I asked Mayor Pennewitt about those new signals. The following what I was told.

In response to my first emailed inquiry, Mayor Pennewitt wrote:

On November 19, 2007, the Xenia City Council passed legislation for a City Wide Signalization Project. The Ohio Department of Transportation authorized the funding to provide installation of a coordinated signal system along Detroit Street, Main Street, and Second Street. This project involves upgrading, reconstructing and adding signals at existing warranted intersections. This project is to be completed in 2008.

This project is being administered through the Ohio Department of Transportation and uses Federal money received through the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Most of that information can be found in the on-line council meeting minutes. None of it remotely answered the question about whether they were to be used for surveillance or sending traffic tickets in the mail.

Therefore, I emailed the good Mayor again asking whether those camera-looking gadgets were actually cameras by which our local government was intending to count traffic, track and ticket speeders, or other types of surveillance.

What do you suppose was the Mayor’s response? My breathless anticipation of her next response never came. Instead, she had the assistant city manager respond to my suspicions, and here is what Brent Merriman, also interim Public Service Director, had to say:

The Mayor was correct in her response about the project, in general. The signalization project is a largely state-funded upgrade and expansion to our traffic signalization system. We are essentially installing a new “brain” for our traffic signals that integrates more lights at more intersections into a comprehensive traffic management program. This will allow for more timely signalization, better traffic flow, etc.

The project involves the installation of new overhead fiber optic lines and traffic light control boxes among other components at most of the major intersections around town. This includes changing out dated (and more costly) traditional traffic lights to LED lighting systems. The project does not, however, include the installation of any traffic monitoring devices—such as intersection cameras—other than the addition of some loop detectors which are designed to simply trigger turn lights at equipped intersections. The devices you see at some intersections hanging from the overhead lines are in fact pre-empt detectors for emergency vehicles. Changing out the pre-empts is not part of the current project, but will be an additional project in the near future to help ensure the safe and swift response of public safety staff to emergency calls. (emphasis added.)

I appreciate the prompt and helpful information of our local officials. It demonstrates their efforts to provide the best possible service to their constituency, otherwise known as taxpayers who pay their salaries.

Still, I was skeptical about the future surveillance potential of the new technology. My research has led me to the conclusion that Xenia citizens have little reason for concern.

It’s true those new LED signals will lower operational costs, but the loop detectors mentioned by Brent Merriman are technology used for vehicle surveillance. The dual-loop detection system incorporates wire sensors that are embedded in the pavement near traffic signals. According to recent studies, dual-loop detection is capable of not only counting traffic but also of detecting the type of vehicle passing by. More refined computer programs also make it possible to determine make and model. Utilized by police, dual-loop signalization could enable them to track speeders or other suspect vehicle with further refinement of the system. That is the extent of surveillance our new signalization system can perform.

No, I have not forgotten about the camera-like gadgets or emergency vehicle pre-empt detectors. I thought they might be convertible to detecting a range of radio frequencies enabling the tracking of individual vehicles with unique signals. In other words, I though they might be used for tracking every individually owned vehicle. I was wrong. Most pre-empt systems detect specific strobe or infrared signals specifically made for and installed in emergency vehicles. There is therefore no reason to believe Big Brother could use them to watch our comings and our goings.

Two types of technology being used for that purpose are cameras like those installed at Fairfield Road intersections in Beavercreek and Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI). AVI incorporates various technology that enable government to create and track individual vehicles and their owners. AVI laser enables government to incorporate coded information in license plates that computerized lasers read and track. AVI RF tracks radio signals incorporated in vehicle antennas. AVI smart tag also utilizes radio signals as well as microcomputers installed in trucks and cars. AVI infrared uses all of the above except lasers to monitor individual vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, AVI is already being used at the U.S.-Mexican border checkpoints.

Xenia citizens have no reason to wonder whether their local government has become a full-fledged member of Big Brother. They have not; but if City Council ever discusses using AVI or cameras to monitor traffic, we can be certain that the freedom we often taken for granted is about to bite the proverbial dust.

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