All your license plate numbers are belong to us

April 5, 2014

In the EFF article quoted below, the Los Angeles Police Department makes an interesting claim that all vehicle license plates that are imaged by their ALPR systems are ‘under investigation’… on the principle that those plates might someday be under investigation.

I’m tempted to ridicule that idea by suggesting that the LAPD should take fingerprints and mugshots of all Los Angeles citizens… on the principle that those people might someday be under investigation.

But I won’t make that reductio ad absurdum argument because if the LAPD gets away with secrecy in its ALPR system, the sequel might easily be fingerprints and mugshots for everyone.

If some surveillance is good, then more is better. Right?

Los Angeles Cops Argue All Cars in LA Are Under Investigation

Do you drive a car in the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area? According to the L.A. Police Department and L.A. Sheriff’s Department, your car is part of a vast criminal investigation.

The agencies took a novel approach in the briefs they filed in EFF and the ACLU of Southern California’s California Public Records Act lawsuit seeking a week’s worth of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) data. They have argued that “All [license plate] data is investigatory.” The fact that it may never be associated with a specific crime doesn’t matter.

This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity. In fact, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under “general warrants” that targeted no specific person or place and never expired.

Just for clarity, I think anyone who expects privacy while he’s in public hasn’t really thought things through. To talk of privacy while driving a public road or while speaking or meeting in public is a very imprecise way of speaking.

What we expect in public is anonymity, not privacy. We expect our actions & conversations to be ignored by the state unless it has good reason to suspect us of criminal activity — just as we expect passers-by not to eavesdrop on our conversation, even though our speech may be plainly audible to them.

So while we may act and speak in public, those actions and that speech are no concern of the state’s unless it can show good cause for actively monitoring one or both of them.

In other words, it ain’t nobody’s business buy my own.

H.T. Paul

One comment

  1. […] As I’ve mentioned earlier it’s not privacy that the government should respect: it’s anonymity. Your public actions & speech can’t be private, of course, but the government should treat them anonymously (unless you’re committing a crime). […]

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