Mass Surveillance of All Car Trips Is Nearly Upon Us

The government wants a national database noting where license plates were spotted. Congress should regulate the runaway data-collection industry instead.
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Update: The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday afternoon canceled its plan to develop a license-plate-tracking system, following objections to the program.

The automobile has afforded greater freedom to so many different kinds of Americans: the mad dreamers portrayed in On the Road; the post-World War II families who suddenly had the means to pack their kids in the backseat and vacation a thousand miles from home; the Jim Crow-era blacks for whom cars were an alternative to racist public-transportation systems; the generations of American teenagers who cruised the local strip in their own versions of American Graffiti. This heritage is dear to many, and helps explain popular opposition to policies as diverse as toll roads, speed cameras, and permitting the Transportation Security Administration to expand its operations on the nation's highways. All challenge a romantic preference for an America where anyone can climb into a car, fill up, and drive wherever they damn well please unimpeded. 

Sympathetic as I am to that broad vision, its adherents sometimes resist sound reforms. The nation would be better off with better public-transportation infrastructure, more bike lanes, and lower carbon emissions. All of this can be accomplished without coercing anyone out of their cars. Meanwhile, a far more profound threat to the significant freedoms automobiles afford has garnered very little attention, and hardly any backlash, in part because it's been implemented so quietly: The U.S. government is pushing for infrastructure that could track every car trip we take. 

Is the relative anonymity the open road has long afforded something we're ready to give up? In an up or down vote, I'm confident the American people would say, "Hell no." But automatic license-plate readers threaten much of the privacy we've always enjoyed, on the road and at our destinations of choice, as never before.

These devices garnered a bit of attention last summer, when the ACLU reported on how many states and localities have installed them on patrol cars, bridges, and highway overpasses, where they capture images of every passing vehicle. The intention is often to find stolen cars or to catch drivers evading warrants for their arrest. Yet in most cases, "these systems are configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen—not just the data of vehicles that generate hits," the ACLU explained. "All of this information is being placed into databases, and is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems .... All too frequently, these data are retained permanently and shared widely with few or no restrictions on how they can be used." 

The potential for abuse was obvious.

Now the federal government intends to build a national license-plate-reader database. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told Ars Technica that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), "is exploring the ability to obtain access to a National License Plate Recognition database—allowing officers and agents to identify subjects of ongoing criminal investigations." 

The Washington Post got an official response too. "It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise," ICE said, "and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government." Is that supposed to reassure? A private database that's inaccessible to the government would offer some protections. So would a government database that no private entity could exploit. A database of our movements that is privately held and accessible to the government is the worst possible combination.

The logic of license-plate monitoring is similar to that used by NSA officials who insist on collecting data on the phone calls of millions in hopes of catching a few bad guys. If the federal government has its way, the car trips of millions of innocents will be collected and stored in a database. Drive somewhere in 2014, and 10 years from now a bureaucrat could look up where you went on a given Tuesday. 

The potential for abuse is obvious. So is the contempt the people behind the policy have for democracy. A proposal to significantly expand surveillance on everyday life ought to have been debated by the public. Instead, it was discovered when the government posted an ad so it could build the national license-plate database. Those behind the effort apparently didn't see a need for public buy-in. 

The technology has been abused before. For example, "Virginia State Police recorded the license plates of cars attending campaign rallies for President Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008 and 2009," CJ Ciaramella notes in the Washington Free Beacon. "A police officer in Washington, D.C., pled guilty to extortion in 1998 after using ALRP data to blackmail drivers who frequented a local gay bar." License-plate readers also present a new way for law enforcement to get around constitutional protections. In United States v. Jonesthe Supreme Court put limits on police eager to place GPS trackers on cars without a warrant. With the proliferation of license-plate readers and the prospect of a central database where information from all of them is stored, there would be no need to rely on GPS trackers on individual cars. Every vehicle's movements would be tracked constantly for the possibility of later review. 

Stopping this plan for a national database isn't enough. As the Washington Post reports:

Vigilant’s National Vehicle Location Service (NLVS), which holds more than 1.8 billion records, is offered to law enforcement agencies across the country. ICE has tested the service at no charge, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act request...

Only a handful of companies gather license-plate data on a national scale, industry officials said. But DRN and Vigilant are the dominant players in the industry, with DRN capturing an estimated 70 percent of the commercial market and Vigilant about 90 percent of the law enforcement market, said Jack Bernstein, chief executive of Locator Technologies, another company in that field.

In other words, private industry is already collecting this information. Depending on where you live, it's very likely they've captured your movements on many occasions. The information resides indefinitely on a hard drive somewhere.

There's no need for Americans to submit to this type of mass surveillance. So why are we doing it?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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