They Know Where You AreWritten by Tim Higgins | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Remember red-light cameras? If you do, you’re one of the few. Don’t get me wrong, concerned groups are still out there attempting to get these unblinking (and perhaps unconstitutional) sentinels removed from intersections around the country; but their cries go largely unheralded as improving technology (and municipal revenue shortfalls) encourages law enforcement down the continuing slippery slope of increasing personal surveillance. In a largely unheralded effort in the Wall Street Journal, the latest step in electronic scrutiny are revealed to us.
This was far from the beginning however. Anyone who watches a cop show on TV knows that modern cell phones have GPS tracking devices allowing the smartphone that gives you turn by turn directions to your destination to also tell anyone with the access where you are (when you’re not already doing so on Facebook). If you have a more high tech electronic navigator in your vehicle, as well as guiding you on your way, it stores previous trips for those who likewise know how to access such data. Many cities around the nation have installed pedestrian cameras as well, with facial recognition software to literally pick out a face in the crowed.
Red-light cameras were simply another approach, allowing the recording of the license plate of a car running the light or traveling at excessive speed through the intersection (probably in a misguided attempt to make the light). Welcome then to as the WSJ titles it “The New Tracking Frontier …”. For increasingly, police departments around the country are adding patrol car mounted cameras that automatically record the license plate of every car they encounter (up to 1800 per minute according to the WSJ), along with the time and location of the encounter.
Commercial application by those that repossess cars has helped this technology’s development, seeing it as a way to build up data on the location of potential deadbeats, as well as to improve opportunities to reclaim property from such individuals simply when required. Start up companies in the repo field are of course leading to a corresponding decline in its costs, helping others to take advantage of and to expand its use. Declining costs of large scale memory storage add to the cost effectiveness of keeping large amounts of acquired data available for future use. According to a George Mason study cited in the article, 37 percent of large police departments are now using these plate readers and their associated technology.
Use by local governments is even cheaper, courtesy of more than $50 million in federal grants provided by Big Brother in the form of Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As is often common in such situations however, regulation of government’s use of this brave new world is lagging far behind its development. No federal legislation exists or is pending where collection, length of storage, or usage is concerned, neither do most states or cities have anything on the books with regards to it, other than approving its purchase. No suspicion of wrongdoing is necessary to collect this data. No warrant need ever have been issued by a judge. Information on your vehicle (whether you’re in it or not) will be gathered and stored in perpetuity for no better reason than that you made contact with a patrol car that has a camera.
All of which means of course, that there’s undoubtedly some pesky little Constitutional issues to be considered. One could certainly challenge such data collection under Fourth Amendment concerns against “unreasonable searches”. The article itself sees possible violations of the First Amendment, as these cameras record license plates at such places as “addiction-counseling meetings, doctor’s offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protest”. Mary Ellen Callahan, former chief privacy officer of the DHS has said that, “These private databases, each containing hundreds of millions of plates, could become the largest collection of people’s movements within the US”. And while the public may be constrained from access to some information through restrictions to DMV information tied to license plates; it remains legal for anyone from government agencies and private investigators to insurance companies to have full access to such data.
But heck, let’s not worry about such things. After all, government law enforcement agencies are only there for our protection, right? They would never infringe on rights guaranteed to us under the Constitution that they’ve sworn to defend and protect. It’s not like our government would use information obtained this to say, charge us under provisions under the Patriot Act and indefinitely detain us under the National Defense Authorization Act. Have no fear however. If they do decide to come and get you after filing such charges, thanks to all of these new toys (sorry, tools), they know where you are.