Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99

Op-Eds

News Opinion Op-Eds

Spying on motorists

Americans are increasingly resigned to the fact that huge government and corporate bureaucracies can gather vast amounts of information about us without our knowledge or consent. Recent reports of the massive telephone and email data collection programs carried out by the National Security Agency only underscored how widespread the use of sophisticated surveillance technologies to monitor the activities of ordinary citizens have become — and how thoroughly they have muddled the traditional distinctions between public and private behavior.

So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that police in Maryland are now tracking the comings-and-goings of millions of motorists traveling on state roads using a network of cameras that automatically read and record the license plate numbers on their cars. The stated purpose of the program, reported last week by the American Civil Liberties Union, is to alert officers when they encounter stolen cars or vehicles driven by people for whom warrants have been issued. The ACLU agreed that both those uses of the technology are legitimate, and if that was all there was to it, there would be little cause for alarm.

But the program does more than look for those suspected of wrongdoing. Like the NSA's PRISM program, which collects and saves virtually all email and Internet traffic between the U.S. and foreign countries in order to identify the tiny fraction of suspicious communications, Maryland's plate surveillance effort scoops up millions of numbers that have no association with criminal activity. The vast majority of plate numbers captured by the cameras belong to people who have done nothing wrong at all. Yet the information embedded in the images is stored in databases that even months or years later can be accessed to reconstruct everywhere those drivers have traveled.

The ACLU called this kind of indiscriminate data gathering a serious threat to Americans' privacy rights, and it's easy to see why. As a federal appeals court judge wrote in a recent case that raised similar issues involving police who installed a GPS tracking device on a suspect's vehicle without a warrant: "A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts."

Of the 29 million plate numbers captured in Maryland between January and May 2012, the ACLU noted, just 0.2 percent were associated with any crime, violation or suspicious incident. And of that minuscule amount, the overwhelming majority — 97 percent — were for infractions such as a suspended or revoked registration or a violation of the state's vehicle emissions inspection program. For every million plates read by the cameras, only 47 were associated with potentially more serious crimes such a stolen vehicle or license plate, a wanted person or a violent gang, terrorist group or sex offender, and its unclear whether any of those "hits" even helped police catch criminals or prevent a crime because not every alert results in an arrest.

Doubtless there are many people who think the increasingly heavy surveillance we live under is just the price we pay for security in an age of terrorist threats and lethal random violence. And it can be argued that people have no real expectation of privacy when they travel on public roads, where anyone who sees them can easily jot down their plate numbers, even though no private citizen has the resources to record the millions of digits captured by the state's automatic cameras.

But the open-ended storage of such data is an invitation for abuse. It's not just a theoretical concern that officials might misuse government resources to spy on people who have done nothing wrong; it has happened right here in Maryland with former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold's use of county police officers to compile dossiers on his political opponents, or with the state police's surveillance several years ago of peace and anti-death penalty activists.

Legislators need to step in to establish clear guidelines limiting the use of license plate readers to specific operations where police reasonably believe such information is relevant, and to prohibit the storage of data that is not related to a specific law enforcement action. There's no reason for the state to track and keep detailed information about the travel habits of innocent people who have committed no crimes and pose no threat to public safety. As long as they abide by the law, where they go and what they do when they get there should be none of the government's business.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Hogan fails on forfeiture reform

    Last month, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a civil asset forfeiture reform bill that had been passed nearly unanimously by the State Senate. Senate Bill 528 would have closed the "equitable sharing" loophole that perversely incentivizes Maryland's law enforcement agencies to circumvent state forfeiture...

  • The Common Core can't speed up child development

    The Common Core can't speed up child development

    Recent evaluations of the state's preschoolers have determined that only 47 percent are ready for kindergarten, compared to 83 percent judged ready last year. This drastic drop isn't the result of an abrupt, catastrophic decline in the cognitive abilities of our children. Instead it results from...

  • The mixed blessing of Bill Clinton

    The mixed blessing of Bill Clinton

    In Bill Clinton's 1992 election victory, he talked of voters getting "two for the price of one," referring to his wife, Hillary, as a brainy political activist who would bring an added bonus to his presidency. By and large it worked, as her popularity soared, especially among Democratic women.

  • Expanding autism program could help thousands in Maryland

    Expanding autism program could help thousands in Maryland

    In my work with children on the autism spectrum, I have witnessed and been deeply touched by the sacrifices that families make and the struggles they face to obtain necessary services for their children. Their journey to ensure their children have the best lives possible is often frustrating, isolating...

  • Worried about a Craigslist transaction? Head to Annapolis

    Worried about a Craigslist transaction? Head to Annapolis

    Craigslist transactions have taken on a sinister context with reports of people being robbed — and even murdered — during face-to-face transactions.

  • Can a land value tax save Baltimore?

    Can a land value tax save Baltimore?

    Reform will be the word of 2015 in Baltimore City, for good reason. Unfortunately, in a political machine city such as Charm City, "reform" means the existing power structure "gets in front" of the problem, produces some great soundbites from fictitious solutions, then runs on their so called "reform"...

Comments
Loading

61°