I’ve written about the privacy issues connected with the use of license-plate recognition surveillance technology to gather and record drivers’ movements. (See a previous post for more information.) Now, the Wall Street Journal takes a look at the tracking technology and the privacy and civil liberty questions connected with their use for generalized, continual surveillance of the public:
Until recently it was far too expensive for police to track the locations of innocent people [...] But as surveillance technologies decline in cost and grow in sophistication, police are rapidly adopting them. Private companies are joining, too. At least two start-up companies, both founded by “repo men”—specialists in repossessing cars or property from deadbeats—are currently deploying camera-equipped cars nationwide to photograph people’s license plates, hoping to profit from the data they collect.
The rise of license-plate tracking is a case study in how storing and studying people’s everyday activities, even the seemingly mundane, has become the default rather than the exception. Cellphone-location data, online searches, credit-card purchases, social-network comments and more are gathered, mixed-and-matched, and stored in vast databases.
Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Fifteen years ago, more than half of these types of surveillance tools were unavailable or not in widespread use, says Col. Lisa Shay, a professor of electrical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who studies tracking. [...]
Law-enforcement agents say they are using this information only to catch bad guys.
During the past five years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies—ranging from sprawling Los Angeles to little Crisp County, Ga., pop. 23,000—for automated license-plate recognition systems. A 2010 study estimates that more than a third of large U.S. police agencies use automated plate-reading systems. [...]
A report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police warns that “recording driving habits” could raise First Amendment concerns. It noted that plate readers might record “vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.” The association urged members to consider establishing “more specific criteria for granting access” to the information and to designate it only for “official use.”
License-plate databases contain revealing information about people’s locations. Police can generally obtain it without a judge’s approval. By comparison, prosecutors typically get a court order to install GPS trackers on people’s cars or to track people’s location via cellphone. [...]
Cynthia Lum, a professor at George Mason University, did a study in 2010 estimating that about 37% of large police departments were using plate readers. “It’s one of the most rapidly diffusing technologies that I’ve ever seen,” says Ms. Lum, a former police officer and deputy director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.
A few states have guidelines for using the scanners. New Hampshire bans them. Maine requires data to be purged after 21 days unless it is part of an investigation. New Jersey requires officers to have “specific and articulable facts” of “possible criminal or terrorist activity” before looking up a car owner.
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