Yesterday’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that residents at several Pittsburgh intersections are unknowing participants in an experiment on mass surveillance.  “Cameras Record License Plates in a Snap” revealed that at several intersections, police had mounted high-speed camera systems that took images of the license plates of every car that passes through, and retains those images for up to five months.

These very capable systems will give a wealth of data to police, and will instantaneously make various checks on every vehicle.  According to the article:

The devices snap photos of every passing car, “read” their license plates and log them in a searchable database.  The system is also equipped to run every passing plate with national, state and local “hot lists,” compilations of cars wanted by authorities because they’ve been stolen or associated with crimes or missing persons. The federal database, called the National Crime Information Center, also includes license plates associated with suspected terrorists.

The camera systems are funded through the Port Security Grant Program.  This strikes me as odd, because the main camera post featured in the article is just a mile or two from where I live, and I can tell you for sure that there is no port there to secure.

The article quotes skeptics, such as attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who express privacy concerns about retention of and access to months worth of data on the activities of law-abiding citizens.   But the law enforcement people quoted in the article are almost all big believers.  And the mayor of nearby Braddock, Pennsylvania, was unequivocal.  The only rights that matter is “the right not to get shot.”  The small chance that the system could be abused by police or others “is infinitesimal  compared with the public safety and the public good.”

I agree that there is a place for surveillance technology like this, but I want to see proper consideration given to equally valid concerns like privacy and the right not to be tracked everywhere we go.  If regulations on the proper use and retention of these images is too much to ask, we ought to take another path.  Forgive me, but I’m not satisfied when my government officials give me assurances that it won’t be abused, and if I’m not doing anything wrong, it shouldn’t be a problem.


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