Liberals / libertarians express fears over automated license plate readers

Even where I live, out in a rather quiet corner of suburban, bordering on rural territory, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of license plate readers which are showing up on police cars and phone poles. Honestly, I’ve never thought much about them but they seem to have certain social activists up in arms. One example of this phenomenon popped up at Route Fifty this week from Kaveh Waddell. After running through a hefty history of the development and deployment of the technology, describing how data from such cameras is collected by both law enforcement agencies and private companies, the author reaches the conclusion that these tools are being used disproportionately “against” the poor and minorities.

And with 200 to 400-dollar bounties for locating cars that were stolen or are in default, some of those companies focused their search on the most lucrative neighborhoods. Two Massachusetts companies told Musgrave that they expressly targeted low-income housing developments, since it’s likely that a disproportionate number of residents in those areas are behind on auto payments, their cars ripe for repossession.

Police, too, have used license-plate readers heavily in low-income areas. The Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted a request in 2014 for information about the Oakland Police Department’s use of license-plate readers. When the advocacy organization analyzed the data it got back, it found that the readers were deployed disproportionately often in low-income areas and in neighborhoods with high concentrations of African-American and Latino residents.

You need to read the entire essay to put that portion in context but it primarily deals with the use of license plate “spotting” to identify the location of either cars wanted in relation to crimes or vehicles whose owners are in default and facing repossession. This is one of those areas where I inevitably get in trouble with the libertarians, so feel free to pile on, but I simply can’t fathom the complaints being raised here.

It’s true that such “snooping” (if you insist on calling it that) can make life easier for the police or even a debt collector, but so what? If the car is stolen or was used in some other crime, wouldn’t you want it identified and located as quickly as possible? If the vehicle was seen leaving the scene of a kidnapping I know I would surely want any hit on the license number immediately broadcast to the cops so they could be heading in the right direction for their pursuit. Even if the car is simply wanted for repossession, what is the “privacy” complaint being made? If you don’t make the payments on your car they come and take it away. It’s really just that simple. And hiding behind some shield of privacy from prying eyes to excuse your non-payment isn’t going to generate much sympathy from me.

As to the question of why such cameras are deployed in areas which wind up being lower income or primarily minority neighborhoods, this is yet another question which always makes me want to slam my head into my desk. Police deploy resources into areas which historically have the highest rates of crime. The fact that such rates are frequently associated with areas of low income has very little to do with the skin pigmentation of the residents and everything to do with the fact that people in economically depressed areas are more desperate, depressed and ridden with troubles than top selling real estate burbs. You’re far less likely to steal a car when you can already afford to have two Jaguars in your garage. If you want to be offended by that, feel free, but the cops are going to waste their time and your tax dollars patrolling areas which generally report one mugging per year if they could instead be seven zip codes over in a neighborhood that averages 100.

These cameras are mounted on cop cars traveling the public roads or on structures which are similarly situated out in public where any set of eyes could just as easily see what’s going on. You don’t need a warrant to observe what happens in the public thoroughfare. When they start installing cameras inside your home without a warrant I will join you in your outrage, but complaints about cameras scanning license plates are unfounded as I see it.


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