Sat, 29 Sep 12 at 21:16 | No Comments Yet
To Protect, Serve, and Scan
One reason I like living in cities is how it’s possible to disappear into the crowds. Unlike a small town, where everyone knows your business, your family, your hobbies and (often) too much else, a big city offers the chance to be alone. In some ways, “off the grid” is easier to achieve in a major metropolitan area than in a rural county.
Rather, it used to be that way. Then the cameras arrived. Thousands, even tens of thousands of them in some areas, watching and recording, keeping track. As facial recognition and indexing improves, it will become impossible to walk outside without being logged.
Nor can you simply get in your car and hide behind blacked windows. As an article in today’s Wall Street Journal makes clear, police license-plate scanners are accumulating vast logs of all traffic in their jurisdictions:
For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway.
Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the police. More disturbingly, private entrepreneurs are out there with car-mounted scanners, driving around and building enormous databases — on spec. They just assume that someone, sometime, will be willing to pay for the information:
Soon he hopes to start selling access to his plate data to bail bondsmen, process servers, private investigators and insurers. “In the next five years, I hope my primary business will be data gathering,” he says.
So far the best customers for this kind of information are repo companies. The scanned plates are matched against a database of cars whose drivers have fallen behind their payments. Whenever a hit is flagged, the tow truck is called.
But who else might find these records useful? A 1994 law restricts DMV information to “government agencies, police, private investigators, insurers, researchers, private toll operators and, in some states, journalists.” Gosh, that’s already a lot of strangers who can look up my license plate. Whether, and how, the law extends to scanned records is not clear.
Either way, the days are gone when you could drive around with some assurance that the government — or anyone else — was not keeping a detailed record of your movements.
Hiking in the woods may still be a private endeavor. But anywhere else, someone’s watching.