Privacy advocates are in an uproar over the disclosure of the existence of a Justice Department database which uses cameras to capture in real time and temporarily store the license plate numbers of vehicles on the nation’s roads.
The program, whose existence was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is primarily overseen by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to combat drug trafficking near the U.S.-Mexico border. However, government emails indicate that the agency has been working to expand the database throughout the United States over the past several years.
A Justice Department spokesman told Fox News that the tracking program is compliant with federal, claiming it “includes protocols that limit who can access the database and all of the license plate information is deleted after 90 days.” In 2012, a DEA agent testified before a House subcommittee that the program was inaugurated in December 2008 and information gathered by it was available to federal, state, and local law enforcement organizations.
It is not clear whether the tracking is overseen or approved by any court.
The Wall Street Journal describes it as “U.S. Spies on Millions of Cars.” The Hill chose to go with essentially the same headline. Mediaite breathlessly asks whether they infringe on privacy and civil liberties.
Honestly, rather than immediately going into a defensive crouch, we might ask if this isn’t precisely what we need given the current climate in the nation.
There are clearly limits as to what sorts of information about us the government (at any level) should be collecting and keeping. We don’t want a national registry of gun owners and we don’t want every phone call and email collected and scrutinized. But those areas involve matters of private ownership, the things we do in the privacy of our homes and citizens having the knowledge that they are “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” as some wise person once wrote.
But we should also remember that privacy has limits. One of the most common is the fact that your right to privacy essentially drops to zero once you leave your home and go out in the public square. Surely our roads are about as public a space as one could imagine. And the government already keeps a database of who owns which vehicle, which is why there are license plates in the first place. What is it that is so private about driving your vehicle on the taxpayer funded roadways that we don’t want that information recorded? (At least assuming you aren’t doing something illegal.) Your movements out of doors are already tracked by numerous security cameras, ATMs and stop light monitors. That information is useful in numerous situations where police are trying to apprehend criminals, though it is somewhat different when the cameras belong to private businesses and citizens. In those cases the government must (and should) obtain a warrant to get hold of the footage. But if the government owns the cameras, that barrier would seem to evaporate. Is this a bad thing?
In terms of managing crime across the nation, the benefits of such a system seem to outweigh any of the privacy concerns I’m seeing. When a little girl is snatched up by a stranger and dumped into a van, you can bet I want the police to be able to access a description and license number for that vehicle as rapidly as possible and put some officers out there looking for it. When a criminal is in flight and crossing state lines, the police may have no clue what direction they are heading if they escape the immediate scene of the crime. This is an excellent tool to quickly identify where they are going.
Honestly, I just can’t get upset over a database which tracks license plates for ninety days. And frankly I’m not sure I really want a court standing in the way of the cops accessing that information while they wait for a warrant. Opponents will raise the cry regarding those willing to sacrifice liberty for security, but what liberty are you really giving up by allowing the authorities to know where your car is? And the security you obtain in trade for that looks pretty valuable to me.