Letter to the editor: New traffic cameras around Iowa City spark concern

A surveillance camera mounted on a light post along N Dubuque Street in Iowa City, just north of Mayflower Residence Hall. March 23, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

By Kyle Nilson, Iowa City

Over the past few weeks, citizens of Iowa City have noticed new cameras watching our roads. These cameras, made by Flock Safety, are advertised to capture license plates and other details that Flock saves to construct a “Vehicle Fingerprint.” These capabilities are used to track vehicles in real time, notifying law enforcement of the movements of its targeted individuals.

I am concerned because these license plate readers (or LPRs) are in static locations throughout Iowa City on public roads leading to and from the University of Iowa. In particular, cameras on Dubuque Street near Mayflower Hall will record anyone entering or leaving the city, cameras on Market Street and near the Iowa Avenue Bridge will record anyone driving east or west, and cameras on Hawkins Drive will record anyone visiting the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Again, these cameras are designed and marketed to track people. This far exceeds the scope of the University of Iowa LPR Data Use and Privacy Policy, which only permits LPR use for management of parking on campus. The City of Iowa City would also be prohibited from using these cameras, as Iowa City Code 9-11-1 limits the city’s LPR use to in-person traffic and parking enforcement. Not only is it unclear who owns and operates these cameras, it is possible that their use is unrestricted and not limited by policy or law.

Not only do these cameras violate our right to privacy, they have a chilling effect on our right to healthcare. Abortion rights are rapidly eroding in our country and Iowa City is one of two locations a woman can seek an abortion in Iowa. If Iowa passed legislation outlawing the termination of pregnancy, would law enforcement use these cameras or retained LPR data to identify suspected abortion-seekers and those who assist them? If Iowa passed legislation similar to Texas’ SB 8, which allows private citizens to file civil suit against anyone who aids or abets an abortion, would plaintiffs be able to issue subpoenas for LPR evidence?

I want to know who is operating these cameras, where they are located, and the policies that govern the use, retention, and sharing of their LPR data. I want the City of Iowa City to reevaluate its laws and consider 1) regulating LPR use by private individuals and organizations and 2) prohibiting LPR data collection on public roadways. Finally, I want the public to be aware of these cameras so they can consider how their privacy might be personally affected.

Dubuque Street in Iowa City near Mayflower Residence Hall, including a new traffic camera (upper right corner). March 23, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village