Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Street Sensors And Cameras In Pennsylvania: Urban Asset Or Privacy Concern?

Kimberly Paynter



Ever wonder about something you see or hear about where you live that you wish our reporters would explore? Here's your chance! You ask the questions, you vote on the questions you're most curious about, and we answer. Submit a question for us to investigate. 

This round, Elliot Adler from Philadelphia asked about the cameras and sensors he's seen popping up more and more on roadways. He asked, "what are these sensors doing, how are they doing it, and what — if any — information are they storing?"

Have you ever been driving down the highway and suddenly getting the feeling that you're being ... watched? That's how I felt last week when I drove from State College, where I live, to Harrisburg to meet with representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. 

On the highway, I started noticing things I'd never paid attention to before — an egg-shaped camera high up on a pole, a radar scanner projecting my speed onto a light board, blinking signs notifying me about the potential for wintry conditions. 

My concern only grew when I got to the Regional Traffic Control Center at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters outside Harrisburg.

Inside the control room, there were dozens of TV screens showing feeds off of those cameras from around the region. 

These feeds are watched 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year by traffic control specialists like Marcus LaManna.

He showed us how he can zoom in and out and rotate a camera 360 degrees to get real-time information about roadway conditions. 

I started to worry that LaManna or one of his colleagues had seen me pushing the speed limit or belting out "Hamilton" showtunes on my drive into the city. 

"We don't know anything about any of the drivers that are in these vehicle streams," said Doug Tomlinson, PennDOT's chief of traffic operations. "We don't care about any of the drivers in the vehicle streams. I'm trying to understand, what are the conditions on the roadways so that we can do something to make traffic flow better." 

The cameras are like 900 "eyes on the ground" to help PennDOT move traffic more efficiently around the state. If there's unexpected congestion, an accident, or inclement weather, the agency is able to respond quickly to keep drivers moving and prevent further accidents. 

PennDOT has video-sharing agreements with news channels, law enforcement groups, and other state agencies. If you're curious yourself, anyone can watch a version of these feeds on But Tomlinson says the footage is recorded over immediately, no one is allowed to record it permanently, and the cameras aren't strong enough to see license plate numbers. 

"We do spend a lot of time thinking about privacy," said Tomlinson. "If there is an incident on the roadway where we may need to zoom in to look at something, we can actually cut that feed from all of our partners. But we're using this information for situational awareness and we don't get more specific than that." 

The next generation of camera technology

Depending on where you drive in Pennsylvania, PennDOT might not be the only ones watching. 

Philadelphia uses red light cameras to ticket violators. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is experimenting with license-plate cameras to charge tolls, saving drivers without EZ-Pass the last minute scramble for change.  

And the rise of cheap, high-quality cameras means people should expect to see more of them on the road, according to Stan Caldwell of the Traffic 21 Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The Traffic 21 Institute uses Pittsburgh as a testing ground for a lot of "smart" city technologies aimed at improving transit.

Here's one example: cities have, for years, used loop detectors — basically a piece of wire in the ground near an intersection — to tell when a car is approaching and the light should turn green. Those are slowly being replaced by above-ground sensors and, eventually, cameras. 

"When you have a camera, you can start to get a little more information and start to get into what we're calling predictive analytics," said Caldwell. "You can say, 'what's the chance [that driver] is going to be turning left instead of going straight?'"

And researchers at Carnegie Mellon and other institutions are working on machine learning — training a computer to take all of that data and make more interesting predictions than left turns. Imagine if a computer knew exactly when accidents would start occurring during a rainstorm or how to reroute traffic after a Steelers game to prevent gridlock. 

It's these technological advances that allow the autonomous vehicle industry to flourish in Pittsburgh, for example. Soon, cars will be able to talk to infrastructure, and infrastructure will be able to send messages to cars with warnings based on computer predictions of what will happen next. 

Privacy matters

To say Caldwell is excited about the potential of this technology would be an understatement. But he's not ignorant to the concerns that come along with it. He says many of the cameras that his institute works with aren't high-quality enough to identify license plates. 

"And we don't want them to," he says. "You don't want to be processing too much data, and information on individual cars would mean more work and more computation."

But the potential behind this technology means the potential is there for it be used nefariously. Sascha Meinrath is the Palmer Chair of Telecommunications at Penn State and an internet privacy activist. 

"A developer that says, 'we're going to put [a] camera into this thing and that's all we're going to do and we're going to forgo anything else that might collect data that could be commercialized later' is not living in the real world," says Meinrath. 

Since it's so new, this field is largely governed by a hodge-podge of local and state laws, research ethics agreements and corporate promises. Meinrath says that's not enough to make him feel secure — companies can change hands, laws can loosen or there could be a data breach. 

This is the modern day "Faustian bargain" that keeps Meinrath up at night — how much privacy are we willing to sacrifice in exchange for, say, a quick and traffic-less commute? 

The data breach from inside the house

But before you start giving all those street sensors the side-eye, consider how culpable you are yourself. If you use GPS apps like Google Maps or Waze, you're already willingly handing over a lot more data about yourself.

A third-party aggregator sells PennDOT all the data you're giving and getting to those GPS apps. This has huge implications for traffic management — a pilot project using this data averted major traffic jams around the Harrisburg area on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. 

"Instead of having to put equipment out every mile or half mile, we can now work with a private company and understand literally in minute increments everything that is going on on every stretch of road across the commonwealth," says Tomlinson. 

Despite an initial uneasiness about the sensors and cameras he's seen popping up all over town, Adler, who submitted the question, was way more concerned about the information he was giving away from his phone. But is that enough to make him go back to paper maps? Probably not. 

"It becomes so ingrained in your life that you need Google Maps to survive basically, you know?" he said. "You can't get anywhere without it." 

As for me, when I left PennDOT, I decided to keep my phone off and my whereabouts to myself.  It took me three times as long, but I eventually found my way back to the highway.   

Submit a question to us, we’ll post them, and then we’ll let the public vote on the one you want us to answer. Once a question wins, we’ll work with the winner to answer the question.

Eleanor Klibanoff was WPSU's reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide reporting collaboration that covers the problems and solutions facing Pennsylvania's cities. Previously, Eleanor was a Kroc Fellow at NPR in DC. She worked on the global health blog and Weekend Edition, reported for the National desk and spent three months at member station KCUR in Kansas City. Before that, she covered abortion politics in Nicaragua and El Salvador, two of the seven countries in the world that completely ban the procedure. She's written for Atlanta Magazine, The Nicaragua Dispatch and Radio Free Europe.