Comments on License Plate ‘Guns’ and Privacy

October 6, 2004

Bruce Schneier writes a column on security that he also makes available on the web. Earlier today, on BoingBoing.net I believe, someone had commented on Bruce’s column about new technology allowing police to easily and quickly scan license plates, match the plates with the ownership record and then cite or tow offending vehicles based on the research.

ways impressed by clear, well-informed writing; Bruce is no exception.  From his web log:

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance. Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive, and was only used when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station. It’s the same, but it’s completely different. It’s wholesale surveillance.

The bold emphasis above is mine.  This is to me the crux of the issue; we are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  In this scenario, everyone in range of the scanner is presumed guilty and therefore electronically searched for evidence of guilt.  This is wrong on so many levels; we have laws against ‘fishing’ expeditions, unlawful search and seizure.  A car is not a public document, it is private property.  An officer can walk past a car and, if suspicious circumstances warrant, search for information aobut the vehicle.  It is unlawful to search without a warrant or probable cause in all cases, not just when convenient.

For license-plate scanners, one obvious protection is to require the police to erase data collected on innocent car owners immediately, and not save it. The police have no legitimate need to collect data on everyone’s driving habits. Another is to allow car owners access to the information about them used in these automated searches, and to allow them to challenge inaccuracies.

I am in favor of transparency in ALL public records and information.  Without ‘official’ secrecy, the incidence of corruption and fraud will be reduced.  Recently, I believe that Chicago announced plans to mount cameras throughout the city in an effort to combat crime by analyzing behavior patterns and alerting based on existing profiles.  While this again falls under the heading of presuming guilty before innocence, the effects could be mitigated by opening the cameras up to anyone with a internet connection and a web browser.  If the cameras were accessible to concerned parents checking on children, commuters checking traffic (human and vehicular), and other legitimate uses as well as being able to monitor the behavior of the security and police officers then this would offset the invasion of privacy.  By making the network public, the police could insure that they have access to the same information that the public has – it takes the exclusive away from those with the greatest opportunity to misuse it.

However, if it was opened up to the public there would have to be some obvious safeguards – not pointing at private residences, it shouldn’t be able to be disabled by the police.  I’m sure some would argue that if the cameras covered a riot that it might entice others to participate; that genie is already out of the bottle.  The flash mobs that are intentionally and unintentionally created by mobile phones, text messaging and up to the second radio have bypassed that complaint.

Now, on the off chance you feel that I’m insightful and prescient, let me dispel that thought now.  One of my favorite authors, David Brin, covered these and many more possibilities in his non-fiction book, The Transparent Society.  Buy it, read it and realize that when you take the two possibilities of security by secrecy and security by open access there really can be only one rational choice.  (Hint: open access)

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