License Plate Readers Stir Controversy in California as the NYPD Prepares to Use Drones

One of the many civil liberties related themes I have focused on over the past several years has to do with how emerging technologies can pose a threat, first to our basic 4th Amendment rights, and then ultimately to freedom itself. Two of the most high profile technologies in this regard, and which have extremely high potential for abuse, are license plate readers and drones.

I’m no luddite saying that these technologies should be banned. In fact, I can certainly see reasonable uses for both within a broad range of society. However, I am saying that unless we have an engaged citizenry holding public officials’ feet to the fire, these technologies will certainly be abused and before you know it you’ll find yourself in Room 101 staring down at a ravenous rat army wishing you had said something earlier.

The biggest challenge we face is that the general public has become so dumbed down, distracted and confused when it comes to the most existential issues we face as a society. Rather than focusing on key issues that really matter, the mainstream media largely blows up and obsesses over immaterial, yet emotionally charged events that don’t mean anything in the larger scheme of things.

License plate readers and drones are two great examples of this dilemma. Both have been advancing into our lives in an increasing manner and most people don’t have the slightest clue. How can people have informed opinions on such keys issues when they have no idea what is happening around them.

Let’s start with the license plate scanners. Before reading further, I suggest going back and checking out my post from earlier this year: How the Repo Industry is Collecting Data on Virtually Every Car in America.

Now that you are sufficiently disturbed about the extent to which your privacy is being violated day in and day out, let’s focus on some good news. The fact that there is now a bill in the California state legislature that will attempt to put some boundaries around this technology.

We learn from CBS News that:

If you’ve been behind the wheel lately, odds are your trip has been tracked by small cameras called “automated license plate readers.”

They’re often mounted on law enforcement vehicles and street poles, and used by police to catch criminals. But in California, lawmakers are debating whether this technology needs restrictions to protect privacy.

The high-tech cameras zero in on the license plates of every car that passes, taking upwards of 2,000 images per minute.

The photos are instantly sent to national databases that log each vehicle’s exact location, along with the date and time it was there.

More than 70 percent of the nation’s police departments use this technology to find vehicles associated with crimes.

“They can track you around the country through these databases,” said California State Senator Jerry Hill.

Hill wants to regulate the technology. He’s pushing a new state law (S.B. 893) that would keep license plate cameras off private property, and ban public agencies from sharing their camera data.

“What we’re trying to do with the legislation is create some safeguards so the public’s rights and privacy are secure,” Hill said.

The California Senate will vote on the new law next week.

In the meantime, license plate cameras and the data they collect remain unrestricted.

There’s a fine line between fighting crime and living in a creepy total surveillance state. We need to define that line and do it now.

Now, onto the drone issue. This is another important subject for debate that just hasn’t been getting enough of it. For some context, read:

The FBI Has Been Using Drones Domestically Since 2006

Meet the MQ-4C Triton – A New Navy Drone with the Wingspan of a Boeing 757

The NYPD appears to be seriously looking into deploying drones in the city of my birth. We learn from The New York Daily News that:

Big brother may be watching and listening more closely than ever — as the NYPD considers using drones and other gizmos to fight crime in the city.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the unmanned machines equipped with cameras and tiny microphones could help spy on crime hotspots — like housing projects, where shootings are up about 32% this year.

Guess they forgot to buy their S&P500 calls…

“Myself, I’m supportive of the concept of drones, not only for police but for public safety in general,” Bratton said Tuesday. “It’s something that we actively keep looking at and stay aware of.”

John Miller, the NYPD’s head of intelligence, said cops have been studying flying drones. They’re looking at “what’s on the market, what’s available.”

“You could see an application where a drone could be not only a very effective crime fighting tool but could actually show you where the bad guys are going leaving the scene,” he said.

Bratton sat on the board of ShotSpotter, a company that makes the detectors, before returning to his post as the city’s top cop in January. He said the bidding process hasn’t begun.

Seem as if “what’s available” may just happen to be produced by a company the police chief sat on the board of. How convenient. Sort of like how former head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Michael Chertoff, has a private security company called the Chertoff Group, which stands to make lots of money from fear mongering the public about terrorism. As the Huffington Post reported in 2010:

Chertoff’s clients have prospered in the last two years, largely through lucrative government contracts, and The Chertoff Group’s assistance in navigating the complex federal procurement bureaucracy is in high demand. One example involves the company at the heart of the recent uproar over intrusive airport security procedures — Rapiscan, which makes the so-called body scanners. Back in 2005, Chertoff was promoting the technology and Homeland Security placed the government’s first order, buying five Rapiscan scanners.

As I have said before, the primary driver of U.S. GDP these days is fraud, corruption and theft. It’s up to us to change that.

In Liberty,
Michael Krieger

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