Every time I hear about a new way we’re going to be tracked, snapped or scanned as we go about our daily lives, my first instinct is resistance.
Maybe you know where I’m coming from. Or where I’ve been. Or where I am now.
But, by now, I really should know that resistance is futile.
A Wall Street Journal analysis found that information on the activities of the average American is gathered about 20 different ways every day. We use cellphones. We search online. We use credit cards. We’re shot by various cameras, public and private.
If Cedar Rapids’ new Police Chief Wayne Jerman has his way, we’ll be adding Automatic License Plate Recognition to our mix of monitoring. Cameras affixed to squad cars will shoot constant video while software analyzes it and picks out license plates. Plate numbers are then tagged with GPS location info and checked against multiple law enforcement databases.
The law enforcement uses are easy to imagine. Plate readers could help police find wanted fugitives, criminal suspects, stolen cars, missing people, bail jumpers, people of interest, etc. A few days ago, I read how plate scanners helped catch a Florida bank robber.
The systems can check thousands of plates as an officer rolls along on patrol. It’s also technology with homeland security applications, which is why the federal government has provided tens of millions of dollars in grants to help local agencies buy it.
“I do envision going in that direction,” Jerman told our editorial board, when asked if he’ll add plate readers to his new department’s arsenal. I doubt City Hall will object.
Despite my first instinct, I can’t dispute that plate readers can be valuable tools. I worry about eroding privacy, but if somebody ever grabbed one of my kids, I’d want these things on every squad car in America. That’s why grappling with these issues isn’t easy.
And that’s why we have to be as smart as the technology we develop. I’m willing to give the government another pint of my privacy in the interest of fighting serious crimes. I’m less willing to give it up so the city can generate revenue hunting for folks with unpaid parking tickets.
I’d also prefer that the police not keep an electronic record of our lawful comings and goings in perpetuity. I can concede that it makes sense to keep collected data for days or maybe even a couple of months, just in case it becomes relevant in an investigation down the road. But the longer it’s stored, the higher the risk that our information will be misused.
So when the city sits down to craft rules and procedures governing the use of ALPRs, these are the issues that it needs to think about, carefully. It’s powerful technology, so local elected leaders should proceed with caution and listen to constituents. It’s the sort of policymaking that calls for a magnifying glass, not a rubber stamp.
Des Moines and Sioux City police departments have worked with the ACLU of Iowa as they crafted plate reader policies. Cedar Rapids should follow their lead and consider the groups’ recommendations. The ACLU’s model policy, for example, recommends keeping collected data just seven days, unless longer storage is required by law, department evidence policy, or a court order.
I think the decision to use or not use the plate readers should be a local one. But state lawmakers might also want to think about uniform rules for their use. At the very least, we should avoid a repeat of the red light/speed camera saga, where disgruntled lawmakers clutching camera tickets tried to pull the plug after Cedar Rapids and other cities made investments and signed contracts.
Maybe you have thoughts on plate readers. If so, I bet you know where to find me.