TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: The (surveillance) camera never blinks — and other tales from a wired, watched world

For many people, it’s unsettling to live in a “watched” world where security cameras record every public movement, cell phones keep track of locations, and websites monitor searching and visiting habits. But for journalists, the digital trail captured by government agencies can help to uncover the behavior that public officials would prefer to conceal.

Example One comes from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where student editors put on their Sherlock Holmes detective caps and helped catch their own thief — using video surveillance footage.

The images recorded by security cameras at state colleges and universities should qualify as “public records” under most state laws, because the cameras capture and store information. Journalists at The UWM Post, who discovered some 800 copies of their Oct. 31 issue missing from  newsracks in the student union, got a lucky break because the theft happened on Halloween. Using footage from campus surveillance cameras, the Post was able to verify the identity of a distinctively costumed thief who, under questioning, admitted to grabbing more than 300 copies of the paper as part of a student government plot.

Example Two comes from the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, where reporters combined basic human curiosity with a nose for unorthodox public records to create a revealing package of stories about the driving habits of local police.

The “human curiosity” part — and the value of this can’t be overstated — started when the journalists asked the question that thousands of traffic-snarled South Florida motorists find themselves asking daily: “How come that guy in the cop car gets to speed when I can’t?”

Indulging their curiosity, the reporters started digging. We’ve all anecdotally observed police cruisers rolling through stop signs and red lights, or blowing by in the passing lane at what seems like 100 mph. But, how to actually confirm these anecdotal impressions?

Well, in South Florida, if you want to know how fast a car was traveling between Point A and Point B, you’ve got a convenient measuring stick: Toll plazas. If a car trips the sensor at Toll Booth A at 3 p.m., then trips the sensor 50 miles up the road at Toll Booth B at 3:30 p.m., you know that the car traveled an average of 100 mph to cover 50 miles in 30 minutes.

As in many communities with toll booths, Florida now has an automated pass system that allows frequent travelers to bypass the payment window by installing transponders readable by a toll plaza scanner — even, apparently, at 100 mph.

The unsafe driving practices documented by the journalists were not merely aggravating to law-abiding motorists. They were, at times, deadly. Using lawsuit records and reports from the law enforcement agencies themselves, the Sun-Sentinel team discovered 21 accidents in which bystanders were killed or gravely injured when police cars hit them — once, according to an attorney, while the officer was “going 130 in his police car just to see how fast it would go.”

This is important storytelling made possible by electronic data-gathering. And it is a compelling reminder that “public records” means much more than just letters and memos. The potential uses are limited only by the imagination of the requester.