News & Politics

Someone Made an Automated Twitter Account That Spits Out Images From DC’s Traffic Cameras

Photograph via iStock.

Drivers love to bemoan the DC government’s network of more than 100 traffic cameras for the tickets they generate. Besides being revenue-generators for the District, the cameras’ live feeds are also available to the public, in case you ever feel compelled to check in on the action at, say, Connecticut Ave. and K St., Northwest.

Those live feeds are the source of a new and decidedly weird automated Twitter account that came online Wednesday, which blurts out a random image from one of the traffic cameras at least four times per hour—and more often if there is a breaking-news alert somewhere in the world.

“I thought it would be interesting to see a random shot from a random DC street at any given time,” says Max Leyzerovich, a designer at the online creative firm nclud, who programmed the Twitter bot. Its name, V2FzaGluZ3Rvbg, is a messy string of letters and numbers.

Leyzerovich says he’s been looking in on the traffic-camera feeds for years since the District Department of Transportation started making them available online. Usually it’s just mundane traffic; he’s spotted a few fires, though no violent crimes.

“There’s rarely a time you’re not being monitored and there’s rarely a time someone like me can’t look it up without a security protocol,” he says.

The traffic cameras are just one layer of video surveillance that lines Washington’s streets. Leyzerovich’s Twitter bot coincides with a new program from Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s office to offer rebates to businesses and homeowners who install private security cameras. Meanwhile, the DC Police Department and the security firm Kastle Systems are building a platform called Capital Shield, which allows cops and other emergency workers to tap into privately owned surveillance cameras in real time. Several major owners of the city’s commercial buildings—including Tower Companies, Vornado, and Douglas Development—have already enrolled their cameras in the Capital Shield program.

Leyzerovich says there are “no political” motivations in his Twitter hack, but there are some implied messages, especially when it chirps out a traffic-camera image accompanied by a jarring headline, most of which appear to be sourced from Reuters’ breaking-news feeds. For instance, “Bulgaria to use army to help guard border in migrant crisis” above an uneventful frame of cars moving through the intersection of Rhode Island and South Dakota avenues, Northeast, seems like a non-sequitur, but it’s meant to be grabby.

“Everybody’s just doing their own thing and some people might think the wrong thing,” Leyzerovich says.

For the most part, the images that get stamped with headlines are just bizarre and sometimes a bit uncomfortable.

Even with all its inherent weirdness, the account is as good a reminder as any that when you’re driving or walking around DC, there’s a good chance you’re on camera. “No commentary, but just to increase the conversation around surveillance,” Leyzerovich says. “I guess it’s more of an amplifier of an issue. I’m aware how artsy that sounds.”

And as for that jumble of a name, it’s no accident: “V2FzaGluZ3Rvbg” is base 64-speak for “Washington.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.