Over the past few years, we've seen traffic cameras deployed in a growing number of cities across the U.S. (We wouldn't be surprised if the trend were tied to our struggling economy, since cams promise to generate a fair amount of dough.) But although the cameras have a number of fans, they've also met with resistance from citizens, and as of today, six states have banned them altogether. That might cause the haters to breathe a sigh of relief, but there's something worse around the corner: Facebook.
New Delhi, India has 12 million residents and 6.5 million registered motor vehicles, but only 5,000 traffic cops. The streets are clogged with motorists and pedestrians, accidents are commonplace, and the city doesn't have nearly enough officers to handle the situation. So, New Delhi's police department started a Facebook page.
The page launched with humble intentions. At heart, it was meant to facilitate communication between the police force and the public and to remind drivers about basic traffic laws. But it has become something much, much nastier.
Click the "Photos" tab on that Facebook page, and you'll see that over 3,000 pics have been uploaded -- mostly photos of alleged traffic violations. (There's a small but growing selection of video, too.) Underneath many of those, Facebook members have posted data about where the incident took place and the offense that's been committed. Four officers now spend all their time monitoring posts, checking each to see if laws have really been broken. If so, and if there's a readable license plate in the shot, officers send out a ticket.
So far, Facebook posts have generated 665 tickets (about 50 of which went to police officers). Since the first photo on record seems to date from May 16, that translates to around 60 tickets a week -- not a huge number, but not insignificant, either.
Now, on the one hand, the police never asked its Facebook fans to post photos. Clearly, this is something that the public has done to express their frustration with the city's enormous traffic problem. Whether or not the photos result in a ticket (and it seems as if only about 20% do), the public has a place to vent. That's a good thing.
On the other hand, this obviously sets a very dangerous precedent. Inviting friends, neighbors, and strangers to tattle on one another is pretty much what the KGB invited Soviet citizens to do for much of the 20th century, and we all know what fun that was. (We also know what happened to the Soviet Union.)
And apart from the Facebook page's creepy, Big Brother aspect, there are also concerns about motivation and retribution. Suppose your neighbor is jealous of your job/car/house. Next thing you know, he's posted photos of you making what appears to be an illegal left turn, when actually, you just nudged over to avoid hitting a stray dog. Sure, you can protest, but it's a hassle, and who's to say the process of clearing your name is easy?
There's also an access issue to consider. Only 25% of New Delhi residents have access to the internet, and typically, they're the wealthiest folks. That means that 75% of the population -- presumably, the poorer residents -- have no way to be heard. In other words, they can be targeted by tattletales, hassled with fighting potentially false accusations, and never do any tattling of their own.
There are plenty of people who like New Delhi's Facebook page, just as there are plenty of folks who like traffic cameras. But in both cases -- particularly in the case of India's citizen reporting -- the margin for error seems dangerously high.