Speed cameras reflect public-private incompetence

Government takes knocks, but private contractors deserve them, too

January 25, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Americans who engage in the outrage business — populist politicians, social activists, civil libertarians, tea party hell-raisers, grouchy bloggers, Fox News talking heads, newspaper columnists — relish an opportunity to bash the government.

Actually, almost everyone does. It's practically sport in this country.

Displays of public-sector incompetence are particularly entertaining — the stuff of Leno jokes — though, when you think about it, deriving pleasure from bad government is perverse; in a democracy, we have everything to lose, starting with the waste of tax dollars. We should want government to be totally awesome.

But, of course, it's not. We get constant reminders of incompetence or abuse. And lately, in Maryland, more than our share.

In Baltimore, we have speed cameras with minds of their own; they're practically cyborgs that give speeding tickets to cars they don't like, even cars stopped at red lights. The machines got so out of control, the city pulled the plug on them.

In Maryland, we have a health insurance exchange that was supposed to be a national model. Since its rollout Oct. 1, it has been described with the following words: disastrous, botched, faulty, flubbed, squibbed, troubled, calamitous — I could go on, so I will — glitch-ridden, glitch-prone, glitchy, broken, unstable, extremely unstable and a waste of $107 million.

And down at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, there's the super-secret metadata collection program, one huge Fourth Amendment violation, exposed by a guy who was there for training for a few days.

Yes, the government was involved in each of these matters.

But the government was only half of the problem. We don't talk about the other half very much — the vaunted "private sector" — so let's.

Edward Snowden faces federal charges for leaking classified information about the NSA's bulk collection of all our telephone calls since at least 2007. That surveillance program has been described as illegal by a number of authorities. Snowden deserves credit for exposing it.

But many see him as a traitor who should go to prison for leaking information about the NSA's counterterrorism activities.

I have to ask these outraged people a question: If you're so upset with this guy, what about his employer?

Snowden didn't work for the NSA. He worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that is supposed to supply tech support and security to the NSA.

Snowden said he sought the job at Booz Allen so he could collect proof about the vast surveillance program the company helped develop.

The company has said it was shocked by reports of the leaks, which violated its code of conduct. But it let Fast Eddie through the front door and, apparently during his training at NSA headquarters, he got access to the classified material.

If a high school dropout with a sketchy resume could get a job at Booz Allen, then take down a post-9/11 program of the super-secret NSA, what else is going on? What happens if someone with more sinister intentions gets a Booz Allen job?

Maybe the NSA shouldn't be farming out so much of its work to the private sector. Maybe the private sector is overrated.

Now consider Maryland's health insurance exchange, established to provide easy, breezy online shopping for people who needed to get insurance in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.

Many of us, including yours truly, have blamed the state, starting with the governor and lieutenant governor, for the disastrous rollout of the exchange.

But it's clear, from reports in The Baltimore Sun and other news organizations, that the companies hired to create the online insurance marketplace failed. Two of them were suing each other even before the rollout.

State officials, including the lieutenant governor and health secretary, should have seen problems coming and done something a lot sooner.

But the problem started over there — over in the cutting-edge, tech-savvy private sector that's supposed be so exceptional in this state, in this country.

Same is true of Baltimore's broken speed camera system.

As The Sun demonstrated in 2012, the cameras were unreliable. Cars and trucks standing at red lights got speeding tickets. Now we're learning that the cameras might have been even worse than city officials conceded when they shut the whole system down. (I'm telling you, the machines became cyborgs, with minds of their own.)

An audit that the city commissioned found a 10 percent error rate across Baltimore and, in some spots, the errors hit 58, 45 and 35 percent.

Of course, we only know this because some City Hall Snowden, a municipal whistle-blower, revealed the existence of the audit to The Sun.

So we have City Hall covering up for the private contractor that it had hired to supply and run the speed cameras but eventually dumped. Makes no sense.

Public confidence in speed cameras must be about one-quarter of 1 percent, which is what the city told us the error rate was in 2012.

Public confidence in city government can't be much higher.

If Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants to get some of that confidence back, she should dump the speed camera program for good and protect us from the cyborgs.


Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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