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A Civil Libertarian Looks at License Plate Readers
Where Do We Draw the Line On Privacy?
It comes as no surprise that we are in the midst of an increasingly informational age and, consequently, an information gathering one as well. The rise of modern electronic surveillance technology creates a paradigm is which the amount of information generated is directly proportional to the development of new techniques to gather that information. The latest development in this ever increasing upward spiral of information gathering is the license plate scanner/reader systems now on line in some 38 states. So what are we as civil libertarians to make of this development?
My initial reaction to any “batch” collection of essentially personal and individual information is one of concern. The delicate dance between the “reasonable expectation of privacy” that is constitutionally guaranteed to every citizen and the “information as the foundation of public safety” ethic which strangely seems of equal value to many is an equation that is not easily balanced. However, the assemblage of huge amounts of information in the absence of any clear plan for its use or designation of its purpose creates a potential for abuse that should concern us all, civil libertarian and members of the general public alike. So what does this mean for civil liberties and personal privacy in Santa Cruz?
The Santa Cruz City Council has approved funds to purchase two next generation license plate readers for installation on department vehicles. Some privacy advocates, including the ACLU, have expressed concerns about using these new devices to gather and retain information on otherwise lawful abiding drivers. The Santa Cruz Police Department says the information gathered by these units would be subject to current record keeping practices, which is to destroy them after two years. It also says that license plate readers only gather information on the vehicle, and the officer must search a separate database to see the name of the registered owner. Officers cannot look through license plate records collected through the units for no reason and such searches must be associated with an investigation. And therein lies the rub.
Law enforcement is an intelligence gathering entity which is always engaged in an “investigation”. Any claim to the contrary is simply not truthful. The natural instinct of any police agency to access information is irresistible and, indeed, part of its training and standard operational procedures. To say that any measure of reasonable restraint would be exercised by any officer in his or her pursuit of public safety is specious at best. And so another piece of what we would like to believe is our private lives is to become a matter of public record. Can this be the balance between our reasonable expectation of privacy and the stated need for gathering information that the constitution envisions? Or does this new technology fail the personal privacy litmus test that we as individual citizens determine for ourselves? Unfortunately, in today's world, that may be just one more piece of information that will be gathered and analyzed and which yields no real measurable outcome or answer.