The battle of public safety and law enforcement versus privacy concerns isn’t going away any time soon. Much of the debate these days revolves around increasingly affordable and available technology allowing the use of publicly mounted (or drone-based) cameras which can record both automobile license plate numbers and even human faces. Scanners and facial recognition software can interpret this data and assist law enforcement agencies in locating suspects more quickly and accurately. But this has some people highly upset.
Cyrus Farivar, an author and senior technology policy reporter at Ars Technica, had an op-ed on the subject at the LA Times this week. He focuses mostly on the license plate readers, drones and cell phone trackers which police are using to find the bad guys. But what’s really got a bee under his bonnet is the fact that even in the sanctuary state of California, this data can be shared with immigration enforcement officials to locate illegal aliens.
As I write these words, there are more than 30 Oakland Police Department patrol cars roaming the city with license plate readers, specialized cameras that can scan and record up to 60 license plates per second. Meanwhile, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office maintains a fleet of six drones to monitor crime scenes when it sees fit. The Alameda County district attorney’s office owns a StingRay, a device that acts as a fake cell tower and forces phones to give up their location. And that’s just in one little corner of California…
Turns out, the same license plate readers, or LPRs, that locate stolen or wanted cars can also be used to find cars belonging to immigrants here illegally.
LPRs capture the plate number and automatically record the date, time, and precise GPS location where it was seen. Police will say that this isn’t true surveillance; it is merely a discrete snapshot in time. Given enough data, however, patterns can easily be discerned. Does a person go to work at a certain hour? Come home at a particular time? Head out of town on Fridays or go to church on Sundays? LPRs never sleep.
There’s one other area of detection technology which has recently come under much greater scrutiny. That would be the growing archive of DNA samples which citizens regularly offer up for storage in databases which law enforcement can also access. (That’s how they tracked down the alleged Golden State Killer.) S.i. Rosenbaum, writing at the Boston Globe, offers similar concerns over how much is too much when it comes to making such information available to the police. (Emphasis added)
This means that we could be entering an era in which it becomes possible to find every rapist, every killer who leaves behind a genetic trace. The technology could usher in the era of mass exonerations. Or it could herald something more sinister — a surveillance state in which your distant relatives’ DNA can testify against you.
“We want the bad guys caught and prosecuted, but there’s a limit,” said legal scholar Mark Rothstein. “The new power of this technology is going to force us to think about how far we think that ought to extend.”
I’ve read more of these types of articles than I can count at this point and I honestly am still failing to grasp the complaint. Farivar seems to treat the crime of illegal immigration as some sort of special case, as if perhaps illegal aliens deserve a head start on the cops which bank robbers or car thieves shouldn’t have. Given that we’re talking about California I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised, but it’s still a mystifying way to view the world.
Some of these privacy advocates are against any and all collection and tracking of license plate numbers. Why? When an amber alert is issued for a young girl who’s been tossed in the trunk of some pervert’s car, would you not want the cops to immediately be able to summon up where that car was seen in the last five minutes and get a fix on where it was heading? What if she’s never recovered? How will you explain to her parents why the privacy rights of her kidnapper were more important than their child’s life?
In Rosenbaum’s DNA article, he quotes a “legal scholar” as saying, “We want the bad guys caught and prosecuted, but there’s a limit.” At what stage of our collective social devolution did we arrive at the point where there’s a “but” after the word “prosecuted” in that sentence? Is there a serious argument out there today which suggests that it would be better for society if the Golden State Killer remained on the loose?
Live Science quotes Thomas Hargrove of the Murder Accountability Project who estimates that there may be as many as 2,000 serial killers out there across America who have yet to be identified. New DNA cataloging work has revealed that there is probably at least one serial rapist in the Chicago area responsible for dozens, if not hundreds of attacks. (That evidence also freed two men who had been wrongly convicted.) How is the possibility of finally getting these monsters off the streets not seen universally as a good thing? What possible privacy consideration outweighs the imperative to act in response to this information?
Whether you’re intentionally trying to shield illegal aliens from ICE or (perhaps) unintentionally protecting serial killers and rapists from the long arm of the law, you’re fighting for the wrong side here. If we catch the government abusing such data for purposes other than tracking down and prosecuting the guilty then our law enforcement agencies will clearly need to be held responsible. That’s the duty of our elected officials. But in the meantime, can we stop trying to handcuff law enforcement in the name of unspecified fears of Big Brother snooping on you?