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The Surveillance State Goes Local

by Jason Willick, published
A license plate recognition system. Image source: Palo Alto police department.

Last week, the police department of Palo Alto, California — my hometown, and the epicenter of the information revolution — announced on its Facebook page that it would be deploying a powerful new technology to monitor its residents’ movements.

The technology is called an “automatic license plate recognition system,” and according to a new ACLU report, it is “proliferating across America’s streets,” in cities large and small. The system uses “small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute,” collecting the “plate number, and the date, time and location of every scan.” Motorists’ data are collected, pooled into databases, and “often stored for years or even indefinitely,” even if the license plate is not associated with any wrongdoing.

But the Palo Alto police are a few steps behind their notoriously battle-hardened colleagues in Oakland. As Ali Winston documented in a report sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Oakland law enforcement is in the process of assembling, with federal support, a full-fledged surveillance center. Oakland’s “Domain Awareness Center” will integrate information from the city’s fleet of license plate readers with local video camera camera footage, social networking posts, and other personal data. Cities like Memphis, Houston and Chicago have developed similar systems.

Civil libertarians have usually conceived of the post-9/11 surveillance state as a federal phenomenon, administered by Washington’s secretive national security elite at the direction of the White House. But the same technological advances that have propelled the awesome expansion of federal surveillance in the 21st century have also created previously unthinkable opportunities for local authorities. Hence our current situation: As the Obama administration operates a massive dragnet tracking virtually all Americans’ communications, local police around the country are steadily assembling databases of Americans’ movements. Local governments are the new frontier in the expansion of the surveillance state.

The backlash against federal spying is in full-swing. It is quite possible that a libertarian-leaning, left-right coalition will eventually rein in some of the excesses of the NSA. On the other hand, local governments, like Oakland’s, are furiously expanding their own surveillance projects without significant popular resistance. Oakland’s City Council voted 6-0 on Tuesday to move ahead with the Domain Awareness Center. (By contrast, in 2002, it voted 7-1 to condemn the USA Patriot Act). Federal surveillance seems to arouse more fear and suspicion than local programs.

But the proliferation of police license plate monitoring has the potential to be more insidious than the federal communications dragnet. A record of a person’s geolocation over time can reveal highly personal information — arguably more than their phone records. The court of appeals for the D.C. circuit recently ruled in a case regarding GPS tracking: “A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

Further, the officials conducting local license plate tracking are not anonymous bureaucrats who live far away (as with NSA spying) but community members who are likely to know many of the people they are charged with surveilling. Police officers and city officials with access to geolocation data are also friends, neighbors, parents, coaches and spouses in the cities they serve — and monitor. This context surely increases the propensity for a whole range of abuses related to prejudices, personal relationships, city politics and so on.

We are heading toward an America where it is impossible to drive anywhere or communicate electronically with anyone without having one’s actions recorded and stored for years in a government database. But whether or not we get there will will depend as much on City Councils as on Congress.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter or email me at jawillick at gmail dot com.

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