While the NSA has been snooping on your emails and telephone calls and online movements, the nation’s police forces have been quietly using federal grants to record your travels on the public roads.
According to a study by the ACLU, police across the country are using automated license plate scanners to record the movements of millions of drivers on a daily basis.
Not confined to use on patrol cars, the scanners are now being affixed to bridges, buildings, traffic signs and telephone poles — in short, anywhere that they can get a clear view of traffic.
The information is recorded, then uploaded into police databases, where it is kept for years or sometimes indefinitely. The information can be correlated by computers to effectively track individual cars.
This gets around the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2012 that police had to have a warrant to track a car’s GPS.
There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy for vehicles on the road or in a public parking lot, one Texas law official told the ACLU study’s authors, and the scanners just automate what many police departments have done manually for many years.
The automation, however, is the real issue. By allowing officers in a squad car to automatically process thousands of license plates in a normal shift, computers are creating what the study calls a virtual picture of our lives.
“There’s just a fundamental question of whether we’re going to live in a society where these dragnet surveillance systems become routine,” said Catherine Crump, ACLU staff attorney.
The ACLU wants police to immediately delete information on cars not linked to crimes.
History suggests that they likely won’t do that.
While police say the scanners are essential to helping track criminals and find missing children, the possibilities for using the data suggest other plans may be under way.
Some police departments, such as that in Los Angeles, already use computers to predict the areas where crimes are likely to occur. So far, these are just used for purposes of designing patrol schedules. With more detailed information about residents’ movements, it brings such systems one step closer to the law enforcement dream of predicting individual crimes.
Such an idea was portrayed in the movie “Minority Report,” and it opens the potential for all manner of abuses. As far out as that sounds, such systems are already being tested by the Department of Homeland Security, under the name Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST.