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Just about two weeks ago, the ACLU released a report titled, “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans’ Movements.” This report was timely and followed the revelations about phone records being collected.
In mid-July, we found out that the post office takes a picture of every letter. It seems that there is very little you can do without the ability to for the government to track you, except perhaps in your own home without electronics. Better not step out in your garden or patio, as Google Earth has been known to even catch close up pictures of your house.
According the ACLU report, there are cameras that read license plates, and they are “mounted on patrol cars or placed on bridges or overpasses.” License plate software analyzes photographs taken to identify plate numbers that are on “hot lists.” The ACLU says that it might not infringe on civil liberties if they were only checked against a “hot list,” but since they can identify the place, date and time, it allows the government to track any citizen.
The ACLU maintains that this type of tracking opens the door to abuse. It would be possible to pry into the lives of a co-worker, family member or boss and could include tracking romantic, political or workplace rivals.
The methodology they used was simply to use Freedom of Information Act types of requests for 587 agencies in 38 states. They got 293 responses and looked at 26,000 pages of documents.
In just the state of Maryland, the cameras got 29 million reads. Only .02 percent of these were crime connected. Some states destroyed data in days, and some, such as New Jersey, are keeping data for five years!
They found that the technology was sophisticated in terms of the software it used, with technology to convert software into machine-readable text. This software allows collection by law enforcement to pool their information and accumulate huge amounts of data. This can allow someone to get information on their neighbors, friends and enemies. Does it happen? I am sure it does.
Way back in the 1980s, when I was working in mental health, a client of mine was working for Blue Cross. She proudly told me she had looked up my health insurance records. She was protected from me going to her bosses by the mental health laws of the state, and there was nothing I could do about it. Those were the days before the Internet and portable computers. Imagine if she were working for a police department on the desk that culls license plate data. She could find out where I shopped, who I visited and when I went where.
The ACLU reports that “law enforcement” can use this information in ways that can be detrimental to what we think of as democracy. They point out that anyone who attends a demonstration can park a car and have their license plates photographed, and later the police could show up at their place of employment to ask questions. The same can happen to a journalist investigating a story or a very powerful politician who law enforcement wants to support by getting information on the opposition.
This is also being paid for by not just our local and state tax dollars, but by grants to law enforcement from federal agencies such as Homeland Security. Imagine if license plate data, your photographed mail, your phone records and the government paying private companies for your purchasing data (something they do) were all in one place. The government would be able to trace your whereabouts and activities with better accuracy than your brain’s memory.
This has got to stop. It is time we put pressure on senators and members of Congress to stop allowing and paying your tax dollars for prying and snooping, especially if the data and license plates that are not flagged are stored for more than a few days. Access has to be strictly controlled and monitored, and those who received the information should be subjected to polygraph testing. This will prevent someone trying to kiss up to a boss by giving information on rivals and others they should not have.
All of this kind of collection of data can’t lead to good. It might (as they claim) stop terrorism, and that would be good. But it will definitely stop democracy as we know it, and that would be horrible for us all.