One of the more widely used police scanner tools is the automated license plate scanner. If you know what to look for, you can see these devices all over the place. They’re capable of scanning multiple vehicles simultaneously and entering the plate IDs into a searchable database. These databases are typically used to track ‘hot tags’ of known criminals or stolen vehicles. It’s no secret that police scanner tools sometimes target innocent people and many of us assume that this data gets deleted at some point. The dropping expense of data storage however has allowed police departments to hold onto this data essentially forever.
With virtually no legal limits on data retention or limits on invasion of privacy, these records are subject to subpoena by the NSA, FBI, CIA, and a host of other agencies that could use the information against individuals who’ve committed no crime. Catherine Crump, an assistant professor at Berkeley Law School focused on the laws around data and surveillance, performed a talk for TED in 2014 outlining the basic dangers regarding police scanner technology. In the presentation, Professor Crump recommends that the city counsels who are in charge of police departments must pass laws requiring data pertaining to innocent people be destroyed.
The threat to our civil liberties is real. In a TED blog interview, Professor Crump said, “Traditionally we live in a government of limited powers, and the idea has been that the government only investigates people when they are suspected of wrongdoing. Technology like this almost reverses the presumption and tracks everyone just in case the information may be useful someday. I don’t think that’s in keeping with the limited view of government power that we’ve traditionally had.”
She then went on to cite specific examples, “the government has abused information about private citizens in the past, to engage in surveillance. I’m thinking specifically of J. Edgar Hoover, under whom the government collected personal information and used it for political purposes. Unregulated data can be used for political reprisals, for blackmail, or even for simple voyeurism.”
Maybe it’s just another good reason to live in a city where you can walk everywhere instead of having to get in the car.