License plate info latest risk to personal privacy

Friday, July 19, 2013

As one late-night talk show host observed, we didn't know whether to be surprised to learn that the government was invading our privacy by keeping track of our cell phone calls, email and Internet activity, or more surprised to learn that anyone actually believed they still had privacy on the Internet or their cell phones.

While the U.S. and Russia wrangle over the fate of the National Security Agency leaker, a move is under way in Congress to restructure the NSA so that phone companies, rather than the spy agency itself, would retain consumers' phone records for a set amount of time.

Proponents of the 215 surveillance program note that it collects "meta data" -- the numbers called and length of calls, not the calls themselves.

But civil libertarians worry about the risks of anyone storing any kind of data for longer than actually necessary.

We might not expect privacy on the Internet -- which was invented by the government, after all -- but what about visits we make to actual, physical sites, not just websites?

Law enforcement agencies in Nebraska and elsewhere around the country are expanding the use of automatic license plate readers to alert officers if they have been involved in a crime.

The American Civil Liberties Union is worried about the collection of another type of meta data -- where we travel in our cars -- and has released documents indicating law enforcement agencies have few rules about the use and storage of data collected.

"We don't object to the use of these systems to flag cars that are stolen or belong to fugitives, but these documents show a dire need for rules to make sure that this technology isn't used for unbridled government surveillance," said Amy Miller, ACLU of Nebraska legal director.

The systems use cameras mounted on patrol cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, and the documents show that their deployment is increasing rapidly, with significant funding coming from federal grants. They photograph every license plate they encounter, use software to read the number and add a time and location stamp, then record the information in a database. Police are alerted when numbers match lists containing license numbers of interest, such as stolen cars.

The ACLU report makes a number of specific recommendations for use of such data:

* police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before examining the date.

* unless there are legitimate reasons to retain records, they should be deleted within days or weeks at most.

* people should be able to find out if their cars' location history is in a law enforcement database.

And it's not just the police.

The ACLU points out that one private company holds more than 800 million license plate location records and is used by more than 2,200 law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"Police departments should not use databases that do not have adequate private protections in place," Miller said.

The classic argument in favor of such surveillance is that law-abiding citizens who have nothing to hide should not object to the government being able to track their movements -- or their phone calls, texts or Internet activities. No one who takes a licensed vehicle out on a public road should expect to be able to keep their whereabouts a secret, they contend.

But as post 9/11 abuses of power have illustrated, the right to privacy is fragile and not easily restored once it is lost.

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