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.
Reuters

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.

Presented by

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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