The Department of Homeland Security wants a private company to provide a national license-plate tracking system that would give the agency access to vast amounts of information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers, according to a government proposal that does not specify what privacy safeguards would be put in place.
Such a national license-plate recognition database, ostensibly, would “help catch fugitive illegal immigrants.” But once in existence, to what use would (not might) government put that database later? Can you say NSA, boys and girls? The danger is illustrated clearly, if unintentionally, by David Roberts, International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Technology Center Senior Program Manager:
We’d like to be able to keep the data as long as possible, because it does provide a rich and enduring data set for investigations down the line.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation understands (see the first link) the danger of Roberts’ goal:
Ultimately, you’re creating a national database of location information. When all that data is compiled and aggregated, you can track somebody as they’re going through their life.
Such an open-ended dragnet of no one in particular, but simply of all of us, for vague, undefined future purposes in not consistent with individual liberty—or responsibility.
Even though the courts have ruled on “presumption of privacy,” they’ve gotten it wrong, basing their “assumption” on a measure of mindreading that simply doesn’t exist in our species. The fact that the loud, vociferous, even zealous, hue and cry over evasions of privacy—real or perceived—even exists demonstrates that there is a very strong presumption of privacy held by each of us, even as we move about in public.
Indeed, the logic is flawed, also. The fact that what we do is readily apparent to our fellow citizens as we wander the mall, walk the sidewalks, talk on our phones, drive on our streets, etc, is in no way an agreement the government can track our movements, much less create dossiers on each of us as we engage in these activities in the view of, or in concert with, our fellow citizens.
The government is not our fellow citizen; it is our political employee. Even so, it has far too much power to be trusted with watching the things we let our fellow citizens see us do without a court’s oversight, without, for instance, a specific warrant for which a specific probable cause concerning a specific individual among us must first be demonstrated and sworn to by the government official desiring to investigate one of us.
The relationship between us—or any one of us—and government is not at all symmetrical, and there is very little reciprocity involved. Arguments supporting such government activities as tracking of our out-of-home movements assume, erroneously, exactly that symmetry.
There’s no doubt that such a…tool…could achieve much good. However, the good achieved is through convenience to government, not through a fundamental change in capabilities for hunting down specific bad guys. The dangers such a tool represents to individual liberty and responsibility—to what it means to be an American—far outweigh the benefits of that convenience.
Update: Now HHS Undersecretary Jeh Johnson is saying the idea of having a private company develop a national database of our license plates has been canceled. So, where are we? Is the idea done? Or is it being brought inside HHS, to be pursued sub rosa?
And why is the Undersecretary making this statement? Where are the HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius and her boss, President Barack Obama?