It's no exaggeration to say that if you live in modern America, there's a good chance anytime you leave your house, your movements and whereabouts are being recorded in real-time and stored in a permanent record accessible to – well, anybody willing to pay.
Right now, it appears that this business of being recorded anytime you're in public will remain the status quo. Indeed, given the affordability and ubiquitousness of recording technology these days, in everything from stationary security cameras to cellphone video recorders, it probably isn't possible to change that. At least those cellphone recordings (usually) aren't being updated to a real-time spy database.
But license plate scanner recordings are. Earlier this week, a California state senator supported a bill which, if passed, would limit the ability of private companies (though not police departments or other organizations) in that state to not only collect such information, but sell it to anyone willing to pay.
State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), in order to illustrate the depth of the problem, hired a private detective to track his wife's activities (presumably with her consent). The detective was easily able to get a fairly inclusive record of whatever she did – including a visit to a gym 100 miles away from home – without having to personally “track” her at all; he merely paid to access a database of license plate scans and used them to reconstruct her whereabouts.
Even worse, it appears that in many cases, the private companies who make these scanners impose quotas on the police departments who buy them. The Los Angeles Times reported on May 16 that:
Last year, [private scanner/data company] Vigilant Solutions offered police in Tempe, Ariz., license plate scanners for free. But there was a catch, according to a copy of the offer obtained by The Times.
To keep the freebies, the Tempe department had to go after at least 25 outstanding "Vigilant provided" warrants each month. In general, such arrangements are paid for by private collection companies, which profit by going after warrants that result from people failing to pay municipal fines, said Brian Shockley, a vice president at Vigilant.
In the document, Vigilant assured the Tempe department that the offer was not an attempt to "unduly influence" its police work. But the company also warned that the free cameras would be taken away if the police department failed to meet its monthly quota.
Not always accurate
So there's definite privacy and civil liberty concerns regarding license plate scanners and their ability to effortlessly and accurately compile an ever-growing database of your movements and whereabouts in realtime. But what about when the database is not accurate? What happens when license plate scanners falsely identify innocent people as dangerous criminals?
“San Francisco woman pulled out of car at gunpoint because of license plate reader error,” says a May 13 ACLU report about a lawsuit stemming from a disturbing incident dating back to March 2009:
A lawsuit pertaining to the use of license plate readers in San Francisco illustrates how dangerous it can be when police officers turn off their eyes, ears, and brains, and mistakenly rely on imperfect technologies to tell them who’s up to no good.
On March 30, 2009, Denise Green, a 47 year-old black woman, was pulled over by multiple SFPD squad cars. Between four and six officers pointed their guns at her—one had a shotgun, she says—and told her to raise her hands above her head and exit her car. She was ordered to kneel, and she was handcuffed. Green, who suffered from knee problems, complied with all of their orders....
Green was not allowed to leave for 20 minutes, after cops finished searching her car and found nothing incriminating. Despite the incorrect license plate reading, the ACLU report suggests police should've known better than to harass Green:
It turns out that Denise Green was stopped because police, acting on a tip from a controversial piece of law enforcement surveillance technology, mistakenly thought she was driving a stolen car. A license plate reader had misread her plate and alerted officers that her car, a Lexus, was stolen. But if police officers had performed the most basic, visual check to ensure the information coming from the license plate reader system was accurate, they would have realized that her license plate wasn't a match, and that the stolen car in question was a gray GMC truck, while Denise Green was driving a burgundy Lexus.
More recently: last month, the Prairie Village Post in Kansas reported the unsettling experience of an innocent motorist in that town who suffered from a false police scanner reading:
Mark Molner, whose law office is just north of the intersection of 75th Street and State Line Road, was driving back from a sonographer’s appointment with his wife around 5:15 p.m. Monday when a Prairie Village police car pulled up behind him.
“As there were tons of cars around me, I was not certain who they were pulling over, but as I had been at the light some time, I did not think that I had had the opportunity to do anything to interest the officers, so when traffic permitted, I pulled forward with it, slowly,” Molner said. “At that time, the cruiser darted in front of me and attempted to pin me by parking diagonally across both lanes of traffic, and the motorcycle took up a place directly behind me.”
As one of the officers approached Molner’s car, Molner noticed that he had his gun out.
“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” he said. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”
Despite being an attorney, Molner said at the time that he's not interested in suing the police, but does want police to reconsider whether unholstering their guns is “acceptable protocol” in such situations.
But here's the problem: acceptable protocol according to whom? From the perspective of an innocent citizen in a presumably free country, if you've done nothing wrong, acceptable protocol says the police aren't supposed to bother you in the first place, let alone threaten your physical safety. But if you're a police officer whose in-car anti-crime computer just told you “That vehicle over there's being driven by a felon on the run,” then of course you want to unholster your weapon, because you might genuinely need it.
A week after the Prairie Village incident, KansasWatchdog.org reported that “Police won’t discuss innocent driver flagged by license plate reader error”; and said:
Capt. Wes Lovett, PVPD patrol commander, acknowledged that he did exchange emails with the Prairie Village Post about the matter early last week, but said he didn’t like the tone of Publisher Jay Senter’s article [excerpted above]. Since then Lovett said he has declined to speak with other media about the traffic stop, and believed it wouldn’t be fair to discuss the matter with Kansas Watchdog.
Last December, police in Boston “indefinitely suspended” use of their license plate scanners, partially due to the vast privacy implications raised by such wholesale collection of data, largely pertaining to innocent people.
But – supporters of the scanners might say – for all the innocent people who have their privacy violated and maybe suffer the occasional cop-gun aimed unjustifiably in their direction, at least these scanners help police catch genuine crooks too, right?
Not necessarily. As the Boston Globe reported:
The police inadvertently released to the Globe the license plate numbers of more than 68,000 vehicles that had tripped alarms on automated license plate readers over a six-month period. Many of the vehicles were scanned dozens of times in that period alone.
The accidental release triggered immediate doubts about whether the police could reliably protect the sensitive data. It also raised questions about whether police were following up on the scans, since numerous vehicles repeatedly triggered alarms for the same offenses. One motorcycle that had been reported stolen triggered scanner alerts 59 times over six months, while another plate with lapsed insurance was scanned a total of 97 times in the same span.
So Boston PD's backing away from scanner use only came about by accident; apparently police didn't intend to let anyone know just how far-reaching their license-plate-scanning program actually was.
While Boston is giving scanners a break, other cities across America are quickly adopting their use. Last year, for example, the city council in Dallas, Texas, approved funding for police to equip their own cars with the technology. Then, just last month, the Dallas Observer reported that the city is now equipping its school buses – well, one bus, thus far – with all sorts of new spy technology including fingerprint scanners (for keeping track of the kids on the bus), interior security cameras (ditto), and a rear-mounded security camera dubbed the “Pedophile Finder,” which records the license plates of whatever car gets stuck behind the school bus in traffic.
Prediction: while being the victim of a false reading from an ordinary police license plate scanner is bad enough, becoming the victim of a false reading from a so-called “Pedophile Finder” will be even worse.