Privacy vs. personal freedom. The blurring of online and offline privacy. Concerns that we are becoming a “surveillance society.” How much of your personal freedoms are you willing to sacrifice to give the police and government the tools they can use to catch criminals? It is a very tough question because it seems the answer depends on whether the use of those tools, such as surveillance cameras or online tracking, are properly used or whether they get abused. For me, the line is crossed when companies or social sites capture my personal information and store it in databases. However, if I or a member of my family were a victim of a crime and it was caught on a surveillance camera, I would be glad if it led to the investigation and capture of the criminal.
The Washington Post is reporting that police in D.C. are beefing up their areas covered by license plate cameras. More than 250 cameras in D.C. and its suburbs are constantly hard at work, grabbing license plate numbers and sticking them into databases. The police aren’t exactly doing this quietly, but it’s being done with “virtually no public debate.”
The highest concentration of these plate readers in the entire nation exists in D.C. (one reader per square mile), so that means that District police are building the biggest location database based on license plates in the whole country.
First, these are apparently different types of cameras than the cameras cities have been affixing near stoplights and other places to catch people running red lights or speeding – the “here’s a ticket 2 weeks later in the mail” cameras.
These plate readers cost about $20,000 each and can snatch images of numbers and letters on cars traveling nearly 150 mph and across four lanes of traffic. These plate readers in D.C. take 1,800 images per minute, every one of which is stored in a database.
Basically, these plate readers have made it possible for police to track everyone’s movements as they move across the city.
These plate readers and the subsequent database of image captures has tipped the privacy concerns of some – notably the American Civil Liberties Union. One of their main concerns is naturally the privacy implications.
In the District, laws are in place that limit the amount of time that surveillance camera footage can be kept. The images must be dumped after 10 days, unless there is an actual investigatory reason to keep them. But right now, there is nothing keeping data from the plate readers from being stored for years.
The ACLU says that this database is storing the location data of innocent people. The plate readers are casting an all-inclusive net, grabbing license plate numbers indiscriminately.
This technology is rapidly approaching the point where it could be used to reconstruct the entire movements of any individual vehicle. As this story notes (see link below), and I have written in previous blog stories, in the context of GPS tracking the level of intrusion on private life is something that the police should not be able to engage in without a warrant.
Obviously, the plate readers are a valuable tool for the police and there are an abundance of situations where one could imagine the searchable database of plate captures to be extremely useful. But are those plate readers building up a database that’s just a little too full of innocent people’s location information for your liking?
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