Do you ever feel like someone is watching you when you’re driving down the road?
Well, they are. Not only are you being watched, but your car is being photographed via license plate scanners, the photo is being saved, and it’s there for future tracking purposes. This isn’t just a high-crime, big-city kind of tactic – this is also happening in small town USA as police departments blame decreasing budgets for the perceived necessity of high-tech surveillance. Wherever you have driven your car, the government has a record of it, whether or not you are suspected of committing crime.
Using automated scanners, law enforcement agencies across the country have amassed millions of digital records on the location and movement of every vehicle with a license plate, according to a study published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. Affixed to police cars, bridges or buildings, the scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and note their location, uploading that information into police databases. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely.
As the technology becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, and federal grants focus on aiding local terrorist detection, even small police agencies are able to deploy more sophisticated surveillance systems. While the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a judge’s approval is needed to track a car with GPS, networks of plate scanners allow police effectively to track a driver’s location, sometimes several times every day, with few legal restrictions. The ACLU says the scanners assemble what it calls a “single, high-resolution image of our lives.” (source)
According to Lt. Bill Hedgpeth, a spokesman for the Mesquite Police Department in Texas, it shouldn’t really be seen as a big deal. His department has records going back two years. He explained that ”there’s no expectation of privacy” for a vehicle driving on a public road or parked in a public place. According to Hedgpeth, ”It’s just a vehicle. It’s just a license plate.”
In true Minority Report fashion, though, these records can come back to haunt you. You might not be guilty of something now, but information collected now can help track you in the future.
In Yonkers, N.Y., just north of the Bronx, police said retaining the information indefinitely helps detectives solve future crimes. In a statement, the department said it uses license plate readers as a “reactive investigative tool” that is only accessed if detectives are looking for a particular vehicle in connection to a crime. (source)
This kind of database is that it can be easily plugged in to predictive software. If you go to Starbucks every day at 7:45 on your way to work, it would be pretty easy to find you at that location at that time. If you are at the address of a school at 3:30 every day, then it is likely that your children attend that school. This opens a Pandora’s box of Big Brother tactics that can be used against you – all with information collected without your knowledge and without your consent.
Kimberly Paxton, a staff writer for the Daily Sheeple, where this article first appeared, is based out of upstate New York.