Huffpost Politics

Next Stop On The Road To Surveillance State: License Plate Scanners

Posted: Updated:
Print

Over at Popular Mechanics, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds writes:

We now know that federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are using automated license-plate scanners, mounted on everything from telephone poles to police cars, to build a huge database of where people are driving. This might seem like a small intrusion compared with the electronic spying carried out by the NSA. But not all threats to privacy involve the tracking of emails and other communications.

Right now, the law suggests that license-plate scanners don't invade your privacy because they record only events that occur in public. After all, anyone could see you driving down the road or parked in front of a motel. But if officials add up enough bits of information like that, they gradually can construct what the ACLU has termed a "single, high-resolution image of our lives."

There's a legal term for this idea: the mosaic theory.

Indeed, the federal government is currently attempting to make that very argument with respect to FOIA requests -- that mass requests of information can pose a threat to national security, even when those same requests would pose no such threat if made individually.

It isn't difficult to envision scenarios where this kind of technology could be abused. In divorce proceedings, one party could subpoena license plate scanner data to show that a spouse had committed adultery. Cops could scan plates at protests, or at meetings of activist groups to keep tabs on who's in attendance. In the U.K. in 2009, a man was pulled over by anti-terrorism police because his car had been put on a "hot list" after his plate had been scanned at an anti-war protest.

And yes, it has also happened here. And in more than one jurisdiction.

In Sanford, Florida, police are already sending "Dear John" notices in the mail the owners of cars that cops see "lingering in areas known for prostitution." The goal here isn't to arrest would-be Johns. This is extra-judicial punishment. The goal is to embarrass these guys should their wives open the letters. That gets a lot easier with license plate scanners.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit put it this way in a 2010 case:

A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.

Of course, the primary goal here is to generate revenue. Michigan lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would enable police to put a boot on any car whose owner owes state or local government any amount of money. Arlington County, Virginia, passed a similar law in 2005, causing county treasurer Frank O'Leary to say, "I rub my hands together in great glee and anticipation. I think it's beautiful, it gives us a whole new dimension to collection."

Here's a summary of what these laws, armed with scanning technology, have meant in other states, as summarized by the motorists' rights site TheNewspaper.com:

The [Michigan] measure applies to any debt caused by "a civil infraction, a civil violation, or a parking violation, including a driver license reinstatement fee," which in other states has proved to mean debts as small as $50. Arlington, Virginia used automated cameras to track down anyone the city believed owed as little as $120 for any reason, including overdue library books.

Bridgeport, Connecticut began using license plate scanning cameras to hunt down vehicles owned by minor debtors. The first victim of the then-new system, Calvin Carter, had $200 in back property taxes. At the time his car was hit, he was 100 feet from city hall, about to pay his taxes. New Haven used its camera scanners to seize cars from parishioners attending Sunday Mass and shoppers while they were in Wal-Mart. The city later transitioned to using the Denver boot as a cheaper alternative to towing. To have the car released, the alleged debtor must pay the original fine plus recovery costs.

According to an ACLU report released in July (PDF) on jurisdictions where the technology is already in place, just .005 percent of license plates scanned revealed evidence of a serious crime. Over 99 percent of those scanned had done nothing wrong at all. Yet all that data is still collected and stored. Some jurisdictions have policies requiring police agencies to delete it after a specific amount of time, but the ACLU report also found that many police agencies don't abide by such guidelines.

Ultimately, that data can then be used in any number of ways. The ACLU report includes a quote from the police department in Scarsdale, New York stating that the use of this technology "is only limited by the officer’s imagination.” He's right. And you ought to be worried about it.

Reynolds' piece in Popular Mechanics ends with a call to turn the tables -- to use the surveillance state to monitor law enforcement and the government. That of course is already happening with smart phone cameras, although law enforcement officials are doing everything they can to stop it -- just read the blog of photographer and activist Carlos Miller for a few days. When a federal judge suggested that NYPD officers wear cameras mounted on their uniforms, surveillance state champion Mayor Michael Bloomberg perversely declared the idea a violation of police officers' civil rights -- a statement that as well as any other illustrates Bloomberg's twisted concept of the proper relationship between the government and the governed. When I interviewed Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police in 2010, he expressed a similar sentiment: "Police officers don’t check their civil rights at the station house door."

Most recently, police groups in Boston are protesting a proposal to put GPS devices on squad cars. It seems that police don't want the public to know where they are, even while they're on the job, getting paid by taxpayers, driving a car provided by taxpayers.

The watchers keep coming with new and innovative ways to watch us. But they sure as hell don't want to be watched themselves.

Also on HuffPost:

Close
Which Women Might Run In 2016?
of
Share
Tweet
Advertisement
Share this
close
Current Slide

Suggest a correction

Filed by Radley Balko