Big Brother Eyeballing Your License Plate?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Soon, cops may not even have to pull you over to know almost everything about you.

Motorola — manufacturer of radio equipment and other cop stuff — has developed automated license plate scanners that can ID you (and record your exact location at that moment) at the blink of an electronic eye. Fitted to a cop car, the plate scanners eyeball every passing vehicle, using the license plate number to cross-reference electronic records for such things as outstanding warrants, stolen vehicle reports, whether you have a concealed handgun permit — potentially, anything that can be tied via the license plate number to a vehicle and thus, to its registered owner.

Motorola says its readers can scan 5,000 plates during the typical eight-hour police shift. That’s just one car. If every cop car in a given jurisdiction had the scanners, an electronic dragnet would make it very easy to scan almost every vehicle not locked up in a walled private garage.

There’s no denying the technology will make it a lot easier to identify stolen cars, say — and presumably cuff and stuff the thieves, too.

But the technology has a Dark Side, too.

For one, scanning random vehicles amounts to yet another diminishment of whatever’s left of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees against warrantless (and unreasonable) searches. If the scanners become ubiquitous you may expect to be ubiquitously scanned, anywhere, anytime — for literally no reason whatsoever other than that you happen to be outside of your home.

Civil libertarians note that the scanners do not merely passively search for specific vehicles (plates) that are tied to, say, an outstanding warrant. They monitor and record all vehicles. They also jot down (electronically) the date, time and location your vehicle (and thus, you) were scanned into the system. Which is both creepy and raises a legal issue — maybe several of them. Will an estranged spouse be able to deploy such records in a divorce proceeding to establish proof of infidelity? Will the state authorities provide information about your comings and goings to insurance companies, possibly to be used against you — or as the basis for “adjusting” your premium?

The ACLU argues:

License plate readers raise serious privacy concerns because of the system’s ability to monitor and track the movements of all vehicles, including those registered to people who are not suspected of any crime. Without restrictions, law enforcement agencies can and do store the data gathered by the license plate readers forever, allowing them to monitor where you have been and when you traveled there over an extended period of time. In fact, a key selling point for vendors is the system’s ability to track drivers.”

(Italics added for emphasis.)

Of course, cell phones already do much the same thing — but there is an important difference: The cops still have to get a court order to obtain the information obtained and stored by cell phone providers. With plate readers, even that flimsy protection would evaporate.

Indeed, Motorola touts (in its product literature) something called — fittingly enough — BOSS, or Back Office Systems Software. What does BOSS do? Just what you’d expect a BOSS to do, of course:

“Plate readers can generate vast amounts of data: database, GPS coordinates, time of day, photographs, plate numbers and more. Back at headquarters, BOSS turns this data into useful intelligence… users can query the data using multiple search parameters including time, date, full or partial plate, location and user. BOSS can also map all locations related to a single plate to track vehicle movements. The BOSS web interface allows data to be easily shared across multiple locations and agencies.”

(Italics added for emphasis.)

Some will say — so what? Isn’t it a good thing that new technologies will make it easier to identify and catch no-good-niks, from parking ticket scofflaws to carjackers?

No doubt. Just as tossing whatever remains of the Fourth Amendment into the shredder — and giving cops authority to just walk into our homes anytime they feel like it would make it easier to catch wife beaters (and so on).

Would you feel safer then?

I know I wouldn’t.


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