It seems I’ve spent a lot of time lately writing about the Surveillance Economy. This may be a strange expression to some, so I’ll define it as the use and exploitation of our location information derived from traffic surveillance cameras, new technologies like Google Glass and cell phone GPS tracking, among others. Recent topics we’ve covered include the NSA PRISM scandal, hacking Google Glass, Homeland Security’s seizures of electronic devices when crossing borders, and even drone use. Some of those may seem to be out there in a world that doesn’t affect us directly, but here’s one that hits very close to home for anyone who owns a vehicle.
The American Civil Liberties Union released a report in July of 2013 entitled You Are Being Tracked that outlines the use of automatic license plate readers. These devices, which can be mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs or overpasses, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. They effectively collect and store information about not only vehicles of potential or known criminals, but everybody who drives a car!
The study shows that the number of license tag captures has reached the millions and that police departments can keep the records for several years or even indefinitely. Unlike using GPS to track a car (for which a judge’s approval is needed according to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling), there are very few regulations in place governing license plate readers. In fact, only five states have such laws. Click here to see a map that lets you see how police in your state use license plate readers to track people’s movements.
Proponents assert that gathering such information aids in criminal investigations and is crucial sometimes in going back to solve a crime because the data can be used to place criminals at the scene. It is also extremely efficient because officers can “maintain a normal patrol stance” while capturing up to 7,000 license plate images in a single eight-hour shift. Harvey Eisenberg, assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland, said, “At a time of fiscal and budget constraints, we need better assistance for law enforcement.”
The program in Maryland read approximately 29 million plates in a five month period last year and 1 in 500 of those were suspicious. Many of these were wanted for petty crimes such as having a suspended or revoked registration, or for violating the state’s emissions inspection program, but advocates stress the information could be used for aiding drug busts, finding abducted children and more. It would even enable the IRS to verify tax deductible mileage claims against license plate scans.
The ACLU, however, argues that this “collect it all” approach that law enforcement seems to have has made it easier to create a “single, high-resolution image of our lives, whether we are guilty or not. When you combine license surveillance with phone records, Google searches, drone images, street cameras, etc., is there really any way we can protect our privacy as innocent citizens?
The ACLU is calling for adoption of legislation and law enforcement policies that adheres to these principles:
- License plate readers may be used by law enforcement agencies only to investigate hits and in other circumstances in which law enforcement agents reasonably believe that the plate data are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.
- The government must not store data about innocent people for any lengthy period. Unless plate data has been flagged, retention periods should be measured in days or weeks, not months and certainly not years.
- People should be able to find out if plate data of vehicles registered to them are contained in a law enforcement agency’s database.
- Law enforcement agencies should not share license plate reader data with third parties that do not follow proper retention and access principles. They should also be transparent regarding with whom they share license plate reader data.
- Any entity that uses license plate readers should be required to report its usage publicly on at least an annual basis.
History shows us that the mass collection of detailed citizen information (even if the purpose isn’t known at the time of the collection) generally ends up being used unethically by those in power. I was reminded of that recently when I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp. Those in power at the time surveillance begins aren’t necessarily those who will abuse it in the future. Consider yourself, as a voter, forewarned and forearmed. I’d let your Congressperson know your thoughts.
John Sileo is a keynote speaker and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy think tank that trains organizations to harness the power of their digital footprint. Sileo’s clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and businesses looking to protect the information that makes them profitable.