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Technology giving police more power to spy on us

Arizona Daily Star | January 11, 2007
Bruce Schneier

Tucson police have a new law-enforcement tool: a car-mounted license-plate scanner. Similar to a radar gun, it reads the license plates of moving or parked cars 250 or more per hour and links with remote police databases, immediately providing information about the car and owner.

On the face of it, this is nothing new. Police have always been able to run a license plate. The difference is they would do it manually, and that limited its use. It simply wasn't feasible for police to run the plates of every car in a parking garage or every car that passed through an intersection. What's different isn't the police tactic, but the efficiency of the process.

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance. Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive and was used only when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station.

It's the same, but it's completely different. It's wholesale surveillance. And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people.

Wholesale surveillance is fast becoming the norm. Automatic toll-collection systems record when individual cars pass through toll booths. We can all be tracked by our cell phones. Our purchases are tracked by banks and credit-card companies, our telephone calls by phone companies, our Internet surfing habits by Web site operators.

The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties are profound; but, unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It's obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse and that don't place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.

Throughout our nation's history, we have maintained a balance between the necessary interests of the police and the civil rights of the people.

The search-warrant process, as prescribed in the Fourth Amendment, is such a balancing method. So is the minimization requirement for telephone eavesdropping: The police must stop listening to a phone line if the suspect under investigation is not talking.

For license-plate scanners, one obvious protection is to require the police to erase data collected on innocent car owners immediately and not save it. The police have no legitimate need to collect data on everyone's driving habits. Another is to allow car owners access to the information about them used in these automated searches and to allow them to challenge inaccuracies.

We need to go further. Criminal penalties are severe in order to create a deterrent, because it is hard to catch wrongdoers. As they become easier to catch, a realignment is necessary. When the police can automate the detection of a wrongdoing, perhaps there should no longer be any criminal penalty attached. For example, both red-light cameras and speed-trap cameras should issue citations without any "points" assessed against the driver.

Wholesale surveillance is not simply a more efficient way for the police to do what they've always done. It's a new police power, one made possible with today's technology and one that will be made easier with tomorrow's.
And with any new police power, we as a society need to take an active role in establishing rules governing its use. To do otherwise is to cede ever more authority to the police.

 

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