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Intelligence Gathering in the Informational Age
by Steve Pleich (spleich [at]
Sunday Nov 5th, 2017 5:25 PM
Preserving Liberty Requires Eternal Vigilance
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. Among the recent developments in this ever-increasing upward spiral of information gathering are license plate scanner/reader systems. So, what are we as civil libertarians and concerned citizens to make of this development?

Automated license plate readers (ALPRs) capture computer-readable images that allow law enforcement to compare plate numbers against plates of stolen cars or cars driven by individuals wanted on criminal charges. The devices are mounted on police cars, road signs or traffic lights and capture thousands of images of plates. The data collected can enhance law enforcement’s ability to investigate and enforce the law, but also raise concerns that the information collected may be inaccurate, placed into databases and shared without restrictions on use, retained longer than necessary, and used or abused in ways that could infringe on individuals’ privacy.

California Civil Code 1798.28 regulates the use of such surveillance technology. That code section:

“Establishes regulations on the privacy and usage of automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) data and expands the meaning of "personal information" to include information or data collected through the use or operation of an ALPR system.

Imposes privacy protection requirements on entities that use ALPR information, as defined; prohibit public agencies from selling or sharing ALPR information, except to another public agency, as specified; and require operators of ALPR systems to use that information only for authorized purposes.”

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 public alike. But, what does this mean for civil liberties and personal privacy in Santa Cruz?

Although the Santa Cruz City Council approved funds to purchase two next generation license plate readers for installation on department vehicles, that equipment was neither purchased nor deployed, at least in part in reaction to the strong objection of the local ACLU. There is no reason to believe that the current administration will change that policy. However, it is worth revisiting the issue of police surveillance generally from time to time to ensure that public input is both vocal and consistent.

Law enforcement is an intelligence gathering entity which is always engaged in an “investigation”. The instinct of any police agency to gather information is irresistible and, indeed, part of its training and standard operational procedures. And even though we hope that most officers in their pursuit of public safety would exercise a measure of reasonable restraint with respect to the information, and particularly the quantum of information gathered by ALPRs, we also would like to believe that our private lives will not 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 a new and ever-expanding wave of surveillance 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.

What we do know is that the only way to safeguard and preserve our privacy and civil liberties is eternal vigilance. This is just a gentle reminder.