Whenever law enforcement authorities introduce new technologies, especially those with surveillance capabilities, people express concerns, which is reasonable. But, not all of those people are reasonable. Some folks go nuts every time they hear even a whisper about such advances.
For example, one west coast city’s police drone program got shot down (pun intended). In part, it was because some folks were afraid the police would use the drones to spy on them while they were sunbathing in the nude. Hey! Listen up. You don’t look that great naked, and you’re not that important. Um, sorry. No offense intended.
So, even though society should remain skeptical of surveillance technology, we shouldn’t, as they say, sacrifice the good for the perfect. No technology, policy, ordinance, or person is perfect. But as long as there are safeguards in place to prevent misuse of the technology and to provide for severe sanctions if violations occur, we shouldn’t let unreasonable fears keep our communities from benefitting from modern advancements.
We should also remember driving is not a right, it’s a privilege, meaning greater government oversight of the activity. I may not like it, but that’s the way it is, right now—until a community decides to change the laws. And since public safety is at the core of driving on public roads, I understand the added caution. But license plates are public and belong to the government, not the vehicle’s owner. Again, that’s just the way it is, right now.
Regardless, those safeguards against abuse I mentioned above are important. So, that’s why I look askance at a new surveillance program being launched by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), using Automated License Plate Readers (APLR or LPR). First, let’s look at the technology as it’s applied on the local level.
Law enforcement agencies have been deploying LPRs for many years. In my department, we primarily used LPRs to locate stolen vehicles. Patrol officers operated them from within their patrol cars. Later, the department equipped parking enforcement officers’ (PEO) scooters with the technology. LPRs can read some 2,000 license plates per minute. When the device receives a “hit,” an audible signal notifies the officer it has located a stolen vehicle.
Cops locate most of these unoccupied stolen cars among the many other cars parked on the streets. Only with further inspection could an officer presume the car has been stolen. For instance, by determining if a thief has damaged the car by forcing entry or obviously tampered with the ignition. The benefit here is the police can return cars to their owners more quickly. Some stolen cars sit parked in a neighborhood for days, weeks, and sometimes months before someone calls 911 to report a suspicious parked car.
If the LPR hits on a stolen car still occupied by a suspect, it provides an immediate warning to cops and PEOs of the increased danger. Normally, officers must first run the license plates through the computer system databases, giving the car thief time to plan an escape or to harm the officer. The LPRs warning also allows officers to call for back-up before alerting the suspect. This reduces the risk of a dangerous car chase (for agencies whose cops can still pursue criminals) or the suspect assaulting an officer.
The downside to this type of technology comes in how police agencies could abuse the use of collected information. Will the police collect potentially incriminating information about people via a “fishing expedition”? How long will agencies store the information? Could a government use it to target certain people? Will government routinely use the data collected to correlate with other databases to build cases against otherwise law-abiding people or use it as leverage at some future date? According to an article by the PoliceOne.com staff, “The true use and scope of ALPR technology are rarely discussed with the public.” This is an obvious problem.
Law enforcement’s reluctance to discuss investigative methods and applications of technologies is to prevent the bad guys from avoiding detection and arrest. There is a positive intent, here. And as long as officials use the technology for legitimate law enforcement purposes, there should be no problems. But, the public has seen law enforcement methods and technologies abused and misused before. People have a right—maybe even a duty—to be wary. Remember, law enforcement isn’t supposed to be easy in a free country.
Now, in a QZ.com (Quartz) report, the DEA is expanding the usage and scope of LPR technology. “According to recently released US federal contracting data, the Drug Enforcement Administration will be expanding the footprint of its nationwide surveillance network with the purchase of ‘multiple’ trailer-mounted speed displays ‘to be retrofitted as mobile LPR [License Plate Reader] platforms.’”
They’re talking about those portable radar speed indicator signs police set up on roadways that let you know if you’re driving too fast. Oh, coincidentally, my wife and I recently drove passed one of these signs. I was not exceeding the speed limit, inadvertently, I’m sure. So, as we passed, the lighted message board displayed my speed, 34 MPH, and “Thank You for Driving Safely.” You gotta love a well-mannered traffic control sign.
Anyway, the DEA, working with RU2 Systems Inc., is now incorporating an LPR into some radar speed indicator signs the agency has purchased. The goal is to track drug traffickers operating vehicles on key smuggling routes in the U.S. Reportedly, the DEA has declined to comment on the program. So has the DOJ contracting officer handling the transaction.
The pros are obvious. To interdict illegal drug smuggling into and within America. Regardless of where you stand on the drug issue, illegal narcotics trafficking brings with it—pardon the pun—a truckload of associated criminal activity, including extreme violence: extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, rape, robbery, and murder.
As former NYPD Detective Sergeant Joe Giacalone pointed out, “We don’t know when somebody’s going to commit a crime, we don’t know when somebody’s going to run over somebody and take off. So that data should be there forever. We never know when we’re going to need it.” True, and when used for legitimate purposes like this, it can be a great idea.
Giacalone also pointed out that such technology would be useful to the DEA because it increases the chances of interdiction. The former sergeant related an old police saying that people who rob banks should drive carefully. Meaning, the chances of a bank robber being caught increase dramatically if they risk being stopped for a traffic infraction.
With LPR technology, it doesn’t matter if the bad guys are the safest drivers on the planet. It doesn’t matter if they obey every traffic law. The reader will pick up license plates of those vehicles the DEA suspects are being used for drug running. Agents can track their movements to further an investigation that leads to arrests. And DEA arrests take violent thugs off the streets—that’s good for all of us.
The cons should be just as obvious. Federal cops can be much more secretive—and these agencies are much more powerful than state and local cops. According to Quartz, “How much it’s [DEA] spending on the signs has been redacted.” That con doesn’t seem to bode well for transparency, considering it’s the taxpayers’ money paying for the purchase, deployment, and use of LPR technology.
I can understand redacting agents’ identities, specific tactics, and strategies but keeping secret how much the agency is spending on the program seems in need of more explanation to increase public support and trust. Maybe with an explanation we’d learn the expenditure is valid. Instead, the void is filled with a mystery rather than with answers, which only helps people keep secrets, and leaves peoples’ imaginations spinning with curiosity and frustration into who-knows-what suspicions.
Other cons include a person’s legal protections at the local level compared with at the federal level. While the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 protects drivers from state and local government intrusion, apparently it does not extend to federal agencies such as the DEA.
One website lists 13 states with its own statutes protecting drivers from LPR data collection abuse. California has two codes offering such protections. For example, the federal law prohibits the dissemination of a driver’s personal information. And Maine’s law requires officials to purge the data collected by LPRs after 21 days.
From the time a human first picked up a rock, one could use the “technology” as a tool and, of course, one would prefer this use. But, being human, one could also use the rock to harm someone. But one could also use it in self-defense or to protect others from harm.
As with any technological advancement, there are always good and bad uses. It seems the primary issues are the checks and balances we place on the use of necessarily intrusive technologies used to surveil people: When does the Fourth Amendment come into play? Should the Fourth Amendment apply? Is the Fourth Amendment not applicable in these circumstances? What case law has developed regarding LPRs?
Lately, we’ve witnessed ample examples of untrustworthy federal agencies’ leadership. Here’s a woefully incomplete list: the FBI’s James Comey et al.; the IRS’s Lois Lerner; and don’t forget the illegal domestic intelligence gathering of private American citizens’ personal information by the NSA, etc.
Still, from a sheet of paper it’s easy to argue pro/con points about a new technology. It’s a different thing entirely to use and apply a technology in real life. Believe me, if you were a staunch opponent of this government technology, and you or someone you knew were a victim of a serious crime committed by someone whom police could locate with this technology, you might change your mind.
And if you were a reflexive supporter of surveillance technology—if you have nothing to hide, there’s no big deal—and the government violated your privacy, you might change your mind, too.
However, if you’re one of those obstinate narcissists who feel the cops have nothing better to do than to collect information on you from a speed reader board or dangle a camera over you…um, in your naked glory, well, I just can’t help you there. I’d guess, you’ve got worse problems than the DEA allegedly spying on you.