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Police power

Unregulated license plate readers widely being used to violate privacy of law-abiding citizens

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: police power, licence place readers, privacy violation

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(NaturalNews) As long as it is something that enhances your safety, then any law enforcement technique used by police is acceptable in our system of government, right?

If the existence and proliferation of license plate-reading technology is any indication, the answer, apparently, is yes - especially if the readers help City Hall with new revenues.

According to the Boston Globe, license plate readers have been used in that city since 2008, and have become quite a boon for city coffers. One $24,000 reader paid for itself in just 11 days.

"We located more uninsured vehicles in our first month . . . using [the camera] in one cruiser than the entire department did the whole year before," crowed Boston PD Sgt. Robert Griffin, whose license plate camera scans nearly 800 license plates a minute - and that's all plates, not just those of drivers who are suspected of being guilty of a motorist-related or other violation.

Scanners are privacy stealing cash machines

Well, that did it. Now they're here to stay, regardless of that pesky little Fourth Amendment, which states Americans - even Bostonians - have a right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Per the Globe:

Now, automated license plate recognition technology's popularity is exploding - seven Boston-area police departments will add a combined 21 new license readers during the next month alone - and with that expanded use has come debate on whether the privacy of law-abiding citizens is being violated.

Privacy, you see, is a moot point when it comes to finding renegade drivers who, perhaps, just can't afford to insure their car for the time being. Privacy-invading plate cameras make no distinction, you see.

Across the state where, ironically, the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired, igniting the American Revolution, 87 police cruisers now contain these plate-reading cameras. These high-tech cameras literally scan millions of plates across Massachusetts every year.

These readers not only cross-check the vehicle with criminal records but they also check the owner's legal history as well, and "create a precise record of where each vehicle was at a given moment," says the Globe.

How's that for protecting a citizen's constitutional rights?

The paper said the camera scanners "can be enormously helpful in solving crimes," but that their use, understandably, is a tremendous invasion of privacy. Moreover, just employing them turns the American system of "innocent until proven guilty" on its head because when police use the scanners they are in essence treating everyone as if they are guilty.

As I've said often, technology is moving much faster than the legal tools to protect constitutional rights in the Digital Age. Per the Globe:

Use of the technology is outstripping creation of rules to prevent abuses such as tracking the movements of private citizens, or monitoring who visits sensitive places such as strip clubs, union halls, or abortion clinics. A survey of police departments that use automated license readers found that fewer than a third - just 17 out of 53 - have written policies, leaving the rest with no formal standards for who can see the records or how long they will be preserved.

Trust police to "do the right thing"

"The worst-case scenario - vast databases with records of movements of massive numbers of people - is already happening," Kade Crockford, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, told the paper. She said her organization is pushing Assemblymen and women for a state law that regulates usage of plate scanners, as well as limit the time departments can routinely hang on to electronic records to just 48 hours.

The ACLU estimates that 85 percent of police departments will have plate readers within five years.

Sadly, instead of insisting upon constitutional measures to enforce the law, police departments are pushing back. They say - in the words of the Globe - that in our "zeal to protect privacy," we may "stifle the use of a promising law enforcement tool." Zeal, by the way, is the root word of "zealot," which is, in this case, a negative, cops believe.

Police say right now they not only keep license plate scans longer than two days but that they actually pool them - share them, in other words - with other agencies and other divisions within their own department. Some agencies are keeping records for 14 days or longer; in Boston, Leicester, Malden and other cities, they are kept for three full months.

Sgt. Griffin said he thinks there should be rules in place governing license-plate scanning, but that state lawmakers should "trust law enforcement to do the right thing."

If humans could be trusted "to do the right thing," we wouldn't need the Constitution in the first place.

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