Turning the Tables

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”– Scott McNealy, 1999

License plate scanners are in the news. Politicians like them because they catch people who haven’t paid taxes. Police departments like them because they turn legwork into seatwork. Officers can drive around waiting for a computer alert. Detectives can assemble databases of where everybody has been driving. The feds want that data too, and pay states to collect it.

The home of George Orwell and 1984 is way ahead of us. The British system is called ANPR, for Automated Number Plate Recognition.

I hate loss of privacy. Wishes won’t bring it back. Every year spy hardware gets smaller, cheaper, and better. So cheap every police officer can have it. So cheap you can have it too.

David Brin advocated “Transparent Society“, arguing lack of privacy should apply to government as well as people. If we can’t beat them, should we join them?

What if people living near police stations aimed cameras at the parking lot? Every car, every plate, every face gets logged in and out. On a larger scale, biometric scanners at borders have taken away spies’ secret identities by watching places they will inevitably go.

What if people bought ANPR systems for their own cars, programmed to detect police? You pay attention to driving and the computer tells you if one of those cars out there is a threat.

We can keep our own database of observations and complaints, like they have our driving and criminal records. Our fixed cameras tell us who is on patrol. Our mobile cameras tell us where. Our history tells us who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

An officer in my area is a drug dealer with a bad temper. Technically he was never convicted. Who are we kidding? Police and judges don’t think we’re innocent because our lawyer made a ticket go away. We don’t think they’re innocent because Internal Affairs declined to recommend discipline.

If the blue lights go on and ANPR warns “bad cop” you should think twice about stopping at the roadside. Drive to a well lit parking lot with civilian witnesses. If ANPR tells you “good cop” you stop immediately on signal.

What does it take to make this work? A lot of effort and some money.

Commercial ANPR costs tens of thousands of dollars per car and doesn’t work without access to DMV and law enforcement databases. But the system is essentially a camera, a computer, and a cell phone with a data plan. We could do it for a tenth the cost using off the shelf components and donated design and programming expertise.

ANPR could cost about the same as an expensive radar detector or laser jammer. It doesn’t need to be in every car. One in a thousand cars provides good coverage and a computer network does the rest.

One in a thousand cars is a lot. Some radar detectors share information about speed traps. Despite being cheaper, these systems haven’t reached critical mass and don’t offer reliable, complete, real-time reporting.

Our goal is ambitious. I think we can do it if we really want to. Should we?

Our surveillance system would be subject to abuse like official systems. We can’t program the system to ignore civilian cars because we don’t know in advance who is an unmarked car and who is an innocent bystander. If you’re a young woman you’ve probably had a cop run your plate for that reason alone. Civilians would do the same, without the “date me or I’ll arrest you” threat.

Authorities would make life unpleasant for the operator of this system. The governor of Massachusetts refused to release records of who used the State House parking garage. (Some lawmakers fraudulently claim travel allowances for days they don’t come to work.) He told reporters, “You want to find out who comes and goes from the garage, go put a camera in front of the garage.”  Of course he wasn’t serious. State Police threatened to arrest a Herald reporter who showed up with a camera.

While half the government responded with writs and warrants, the other half would be sending subpoenas. Toll account records end up in criminal court and divorce court. Private surveillance records would too.

It’s a moot point. Tracking everybody is getting easier. If we don’t, somebody else will. If we do, somebody else will. For every ChoicePoint and Google making headlines there must be a dozen companies who know how to keep a low profile.

I’m planning a long road trip. I want a working car, favorable weather, and to see police before they see me. Maybe next year I can have that last one.

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