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The Coastal Packet

The longtime national journal, Progressive Review, has moved its headquarters from Washington DC to Freeport, Maine, where its editor, Sam Smith, has long ties. This is a local edition dealing with Maine news and progressive politics.

2/8/10

LICENSE PLATE SCANNERS: ANOTHER UNCONSITUTIONAL TOOL FOR COPS

Shenna Bellows, Maine Civil Liberties Union - Automatic license plate-readers scan and store the license plates of any car that an equipped police cruiser encounters-on the highway, in a parking lot, in a neighborhood. The scanner then checks the plate against databases, watch-lists and the identity and location of the scan is stored in a police database.

Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1928, "The makers of the Constitution: conferred as against the government, the right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." Mainers cherish our right to be left alone by the government - to think, say, and do what we want as long as we are not hurting our neighbors or breaking the law. ALPRs, like all surveillance, threaten those fundamental privacy rights.

There are three primary civil liberties problems with this technology itself - the cameras, the hot lists, and most seriously, the database.

First, surveillance cameras, in themselves, have a chilling effect on freedom of movement. People behave differently when they believe themselves to be under surveillance. This has been a theory behind prison architecture for decades, and indeed, we have come to expect cameras in situations where heightened security is at issue - at the bank or the airport. Cameras on police cars can be very effective, and indeed, the ACLU has supported them in situations that protect both police and citizens, by videotaping arrests and questioning of suspects. But there is a difference between the camera used to monitor interactions between law enforcement and the public and surveillance cameras that monitor the ordinary activity of us, the people as we go about our daily lives. In a free society, we have an expectation that we are not being monitored by law enforcement unless we are suspected of wrongdoing or involved in a situation that requires police action. All people in America are presumed innocent and law-abiding unless the evidence indicates otherwise. The very nature of these surveillance cameras turns that presumption of innocence on its head - into a presumption that we are all guilty.

Second, the cameras rely on "hot lists," lists fed into the camera by law enforcement to generate automated matches. Even if we can't agree that surveillance cameras in themselves have a chilling effect on a free society, then perhaps we can agree on the dangers of unlimited "hot lists." The technology that many of you have seen and you will hear described in more detail functions using "hot lists" that allow law enforcement to match a photographed license plate to a license plate number on a hot list. This technology allows law enforcement to use any hot list that they like or even to construct a hot list themselves. Imagine the potential abuse of such hot lists. Law enforcement could sweep the parking lot of a No on 1 or Yes on 1 rally. . .or a synagogue. . .or a mosque. . .or a church to record the license plate numbers, which would then enable law enforcement to use that list of license plate numbers to monitor the actions of those participants.

Think that wouldn't happen in America? Ask the Eastern Maine Peace and Justice Center or Senator John Kerry or others who have been subjected to FBI surveillance because of their political activities. We have further concerns about use of some federally compiled lists, like the so-called terrorist watch list, which numbers over one million names and includes names like those of the civil rights leader and current Congressman John Lewis as well as eight-year old Mikey Hicks. Hot list technology that creates an automated match makes this surveillance camera system even more powerful and potentially threatening to civil liberties than an ordinary camera.

Third, the most dangerous aspect of this system is the database that the camera creates and feeds. I have seen this database in my visit to South Portland to meet with law enforcement. The database contains the record of every car law enforcement has encountered with a photograph, date, time and location. This database contains a virtual map of the movements of ordinary citizens about the community. Lieutenant Frank Clark has described this in the newspaper saying, "Information is gold." He is absolutely correct. Already, other jurisdictions are sharing these databases with repo companies looking to repossess vehicles whose owners are behind on payments. The commercial and political interest in these types of databases is enormous. A journalist friend of mine said when I shared with him the details of this information, "I do want to know if the mayor is at the liquor store. That's news." The newspaper. . .or one's political opponents. . .might very well be interested in who visits the liquor store or the adult video shop or a psychiatrist or a family planning center. Commercial entities have a strong interest in who shops at their stores or their competitor's stores. You will hear from supporters of this technology that their interest is very limited, but we know from experience that inevitably mission creep expands uses of these powerful technologies from law enforcement to intelligence gathering to total information awareness, all at the expense of the privacy of ordinary citizens. . .

When the government invades our privacy by collecting information about our private, personal lives, the government then has a responsibility to ensure that we are kept safe from those who would seek merely to embarrass one of us or our neighbors to those who would do us harm. We are concerned that the hasty adoption of this technology has serious and dramatic implications for both our liberty and our security. . .

The three civil liberties problems with the technology itself include the cameras, the hot lists used to create matches, and the database. Each of those technological elements creates liberty and security vulnerabilities. The urge to use the newest, fastest technology is not surprising, but ALPR's simply place too much data mining power in the hands of the police and those who breach their systems.

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