Green Room

Police tracking license plates to build database of citizen movement?

posted at 1:36 pm on November 19, 2013 by

Glenn Reynolds writes about the latest data-mining venture by government, this time on a more local level, thanks to new technology and its massive deployment.  Communities can now build systems cataloguing the movement of cars on public streets, but should they?

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine that activists, concerned with official misconduct, install license-plate readers on private property to track the location of every car belonging to the police department or a politician and upload the locations to a public database. The result: a map of where the police go, and where they don’t—along, perhaps, with politicians’ visits to motels or strip clubs.

Given that police often respond with hostility to simply being videotaped, I expect that a venture like this would prompt an outcry, and probably some efforts to shut it down. But this is precisely what officialdom is doing to citizens.

Actually, I’d bet that the police do have that data available on their own movements.  Most commercial fleets have GPS tracking systems that allow managers to track vehicles in real time and create databases of their movements, and have for a number of years.  If for no other reasons than safety, I’d guess that most law-enforcement agencies have this as well — although I doubt they’d be anxious to share that data with people outside their departments.

But if they’re going to track our movements, Glenn argues, then fair is fair:

In his prophetic 1998 book, The Transparent Society, David Brin wrote that technology was going to make it almost impossible to stop snooping. But, he suggested, if the government and corporations want to spy on us, they should let the public know what they are doing, too, by letting us track their data. We can set up Web feeds from every police headquarters, for a start. Today, we’re living in Brin’s world, or at least we’re halfway there. Big organizations are already watching individuals—perhaps it’s time to open things up in the other direction.

Be sure to read it all.

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Here’s a thought experiment: imagine that activists, concerned with official misconduct, install license-plate readers on private property to track the location of every car belonging to the police department or a politician and upload the locations to a public database. The result: a map of where the police go, and where they don’t—along, perhaps, with politicians’ visits to motels or strip clubs.

Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more accurate to install GPS devices in all these public vehicles?

NotCoach on November 19, 2013 at 1:40 PM

Actually, I’d bet that the police do have that data available on their own movements. Most commercial fleets have GPS tracking systems that allow managers to track vehicles in real time and create databases of their movements, and have for a number of years. If for no other reasons than safety, I’d guess that most law-enforcement agencies have this as well — although I doubt they’d be anxious to share that data with people outside their departments.

Doh!

You blow up the hypothetical offered by Glenn instantly, Ed. Although the hypothetical is silly in another way. We don’t need to demonstrate how public officials might be upset at such tracking of themselves to reason how it shouldn’t be done to private citizens. We just need to point to the words ‘public’, and ‘private’.

NotCoach on November 19, 2013 at 1:44 PM

Just wait until we all get a GPS microchip in our bodies.

rbj on November 19, 2013 at 1:53 PM

Only problem is that we don’t have access to the DMV database like the government does. Yes, we could manually figure out license plate numbers, but that’s a lot of work.

Plus, I’m sure there’s some type of law or regulation in the Patriot Act that would trigger an investigation into anyone compiling a database of government movement. Probably be called a terrorist.

ButterflyDragon on November 19, 2013 at 2:04 PM

And if you don’t like it you’re a paranoid tin hat wing nut.

Akzed on November 19, 2013 at 2:25 PM

Freedom is Slavery.

War is Peace.

Privacy is Monitoring.

OhEssYouCowboys on November 19, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Ed,

You’re too late. Take a look at policegps.com

And while you’re there, watch this video…..especially around the 0:33 second mark. Pause the vid there, and look at the info that is on the map.

Closely.

BobMbx on November 19, 2013 at 2:26 PM

BobMbx on November 19, 2013 at 2:26 PM

So if nothing else they want to mail speeding tickets to everyone twice a week, I guess.

Akzed on November 19, 2013 at 2:29 PM

Sorry, the link is gpspolice.com

BobMbx on November 19, 2013 at 2:32 PM

Why do they get so mad over apps that help motorists identify speed traps, red-light cameras, and cherry-picking locations?

Christien on November 19, 2013 at 2:57 PM

…drones!

KOOLAID2 on November 19, 2013 at 6:59 PM