Plate scanners give cops license to spy on drivers

by Mike Heral

Using infrared caneras to fight auto theftA motorist driving anywhere in San Diego County is likely to meet at least one police car. Usually, this makes drivers check their speed. But drivers have more things to worry about than just receiving moving violations. They have to worry their privacy is being compromised.

San Diego law enforcement agencies, like many across the country, routinely record license plates of all motorists encountered during a patrol. They do so without explicit permission from motorists. Worse, some agencies save the data indefinitely. This sensitive information is used for whatever purpose law enforcement deems necessary. The practice is part of a burgeoning surveillance trend. It’s a trend that should scare even those with the most conservative mindset.

San Diego law enforcement agencies began using license plate readers in 2010. According to San Diego CityBeat, officers have recorded more than 36 million LPR scans, which are stored in two separate databases. The San Diego Association of Governments database is used as a central hub. It’s accessible to local and national law enforcement organizations. SANDAG retains LPR data for as long as two years. Inexplicably, the San Diego County Sheriff Department also holds LPR data indefinitely.

Officials say they need scans saved long-term because no one knows when a crime will be committed, or by whom. They point to a growing list of success stories. Most notably, convicted murderer John Gardner was identified as a suspect in the death of Poway teenager Chelsea King because his license plate appeared in an inventory of scans captured during King’s disappearance. King’s killer might not have been brought to justice had LPR data been retained only for a limited time.

Few can argue against surveillance technology when it’s used to apprehend scum. I imagine most wouldn’t have a problem with relaxing ethical standards anytime law enforcement needs to catch pedophiles. The problem, though, is bending ethical standards gets easier with every new wrinkle. Before long, society is imprisoned in a perpetual police state.

We aren’t far from that right now. The American Civil Liberties Union found out law enforcement agencies have tracked cell phone usage against citizens in the same way license plates are used to capture their whereabouts. Additionally, security cameras are now so ubiquitous few notice them anymore. Remember the footage of Christopher Dorner disposing items behind a store in National City just last month? While that was a private surveillance camera, San Diego uses cameras to monitor public places, even as Mayor Bob Filner ceases red-light camera monitoring. In a press release, Filner said “robotic technology” shouldn’t take the place of officers performing customary police functions on the street. What validity do any electronic surveillance methods actually have in San Diego?

Surveillance cameras and cell phone triangulation are practically yesterday’s technology compared to the next wave of police surveillance. Drones are ready to hover above citizens’ backyards, threatening to record their sunbathing habits just in case Chief Wiggum needs to discover who pilfered Coppertone from the Kwik-E-Mart.

It’s ridiculous to have ordinary citizens’ movements plotted by local law enforcement agencies. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor seems to agree. In a consenting opinion involving the police illegally placing a GPS unit on a suspect’s car, Sotomayor said police use of GPS technology has the potential for violating an individual’s privacy. It’s a shame the majority decision revolved around the issue of trespassing instead of whether or not involuntary capture of GPS data constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

LPR is one police surveillance system using GPS to pinpoint citizens’ locations. A personal trip history of drivers can be obtained if license plates are recorded enough times. Therefore, LPR databases contain information potentially embarrassing to a driver, should it become public knowledge.

Databases, even government ones, are hacked with regularity. Recently, hackers were able to obtain the social security numbers of Vice President Joe Biden and other government officials. The longer sensitive data remains in the SANDAG and sheriff’s databases, the more likely it will be hacked. In fact, there’s no valid reason for the sheriff to have a separate database. If we have to put up with any database storing surreptitious data, one is more than enough.

The public’s need to safeguard personal privacy must outweigh law enforcement’s desire to maintain volumes of scans on the slim chance one is currently wanted for a crime. Both before and after relying on questionable surveillance methods, police officers caught criminals without compromising everyone’s privacy in the process. Paraphrasing Filner, it’s what used to be called good, old-fashioned police work.

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