This week’s report that U.S. government surveillance efforts have reached our roads appears to be just the latest troubling expansion of post-Sept. 11 domestic spying. Like so many of the online surveillance techniques that have been revealed in recent years, the newly uncovered Justice Department program — which scans license plates in order to track the movements of vehicles, creating a national database for law enforcement agencies — gathers huge amounts of data about the movements of innocent and guilty people alike. But, like the rise of government cybersurveillance, the rise of auto surveillance has happened so rapidly and completely that the public may only be waking up to it long after it has become an ineradicable fixture of modern American life.
According to the report, in addition to installing cameras on public roads, the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration taps into a massive and growing network of license plate scanners operated by various local law enforcement agencies. These plate reading programs, helped by grants from the Department of Homeland Security, are now operated by as many as 70 percent of local police departments, which see them as a “force multiplier” for overworked beat cops. With the ability to automatically scan more than 100,000 vehicles per day at an ever-lower cost, police say the devices simply make officers more efficient at their jobs.
That same efficiency argument is also responsible for proliferating license plate scanners in the private sector, where they are largely used for debt collection. As the Boston Globe reported, a nationwide network of unmarked cars armed with automated plate readers hoovers up data from cars in order to find cars that are stolen or in default, making a once-painstaking process as easy as making the morning commute. These private firms assert that collecting the data is covered by the First Amendment, even when they make their data pools available to law enforcement agencies. And given the growing importance of auto credit expansion to car sales, it seems that these private plate scanners have come to play a critical role in the new economy — and they are unlikely to simply disappear due to privacy concerns.